Sunday, August 30, 2015

Oliver Sacks (1933 - 2015)

Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and writer, has died of cancer at 82.

Here's the New York Times obit. (A video about Sacks will automatically start playing when you click the link. I've removed links from this block quote, and added some links.)

Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and acclaimed author who explored some of the brain’s strangest pathways in best-selling case histories like “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” using his patients’ disorders as starting points for eloquent meditations on consciousness and the human condition, died Sunday at his home in New York City. . . .

Dr. Sacks announced in February, in an Op-Ed essay in The New York Times, that an earlier melanoma in his eye had spread to his liver and that he was in the late stages of terminal cancer.

As a medical doctor and a writer, Dr. Sacks achieved a level of popular renown rare among scientists. More than a million copies of his books are in print in the United States, his work was adapted for film and stage, and he received about 10,000 letters a year. (“I invariably reply to people under 10, over 90 or in prison,” he once said.)

Dr. Sacks variously described his books and essays as case histories, pathographies, clinical tales or “neurological novels.” His subjects included Madeleine J., a blind woman who perceived her hands only as useless “lumps of dough”; Jimmie G., a submarine radio operator whose amnesia stranded him for more than three decades in 1945; and Dr. P. — the man who mistook his wife for a hat — whose brain lost the ability to decipher what his eyes were seeing.

Describing his patients’ struggles and sometimes uncanny gifts, Dr. Sacks helped introduce syndromes like Tourette’s or Asperger’s to a general audience. But he illuminated their characters as much as their conditions; he humanized and demystified them. . . .

“I had always liked to see myself as a naturalist or explorer,” Dr. Sacks wrote in “A Leg to Stand On” (1984), about his own experiences recovering from muscle surgery. “I had explored many strange, neuropsychological lands — the furthest Arctics and Tropics of neurological disorder.”

His intellectual curiosity took him even further. On his website, Dr. Sacks maintained a partial list of topics he had written about. It included aging, amnesia, color, deafness, dreams, ferns, Freud, hallucinations, neural Darwinism, phantom limbs, photography, pre-Columbian history, swimming and twins. . . .

“I love to discover potential in people who aren’t thought to have any,” he told People magazine in 1986.

Other books included the best-selling “An Anthropologist on Mars” (1995), about autistic savants and other patients who managed to thrive with their disorders; “The Mind’s Eye” (2010), about the ways people compensate for brain injuries; and three books about specific neurological conditions: “Migraine” (1970), “The Island of the Colorblind” (1997) and “Seeing Voices” (1989), a look at language perception among the deaf. . . .

Dr. Sacks’s accounts of neurological oddities found a wide popular audience and were adapted for Hollywood, the theater, even opera. Robin Williams portrayed a Sacks-like doctor in the 1990 film version of “Awakenings,” and the novelist Richard Powers based a central character on him in his 2006 book, “The Echo Maker.” The 2011 movie “The Music Never Stopped” was adapted from “The Last Hippie,” one of the case studies collected in “An Anthropologist on Mars.” An opera based on “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” with music by Michael Nyman and a libretto by Christopher Rawlence, had its premiere in London in 1986 and was staged at Lincoln Center in New York in 1988. . . .

A skilled pianist, Dr. Sacks often wrote about the relationship between music and the mind, eventually devoting a whole book, “Musicophilia” (2007), to the subject. Dr. Sacks disagreed with the Harvard psychologist and author Steven Pinker’s view of music as “auditory cheesecake, an evolutionary accident piggybacking on language,” and pointed to its ability to reach dementia patients as evidence that music appreciation is hard-wired into the brain.

“I haven’t heard of a human being who isn’t musical, or who doesn’t respond to music one way or another,” he told an audience at Columbia University in 2006. “I think we are an essentially, profoundly musical species. And I don’t know whether — for all I know, language piggybacked on music.”

Referring to Nietzsche’s claim that listening to Bizet had made him a better philosopher, Dr. Sacks said, “I think Mozart makes me a better neurologist.” . . .

After several early flings, he wrote [in his 2015 memoir], he settled into a period of celibacy that lasted 35 years before he found love late in life. He is survived by his partner of eight years, the writer Bill Hayes. . . .

In 1989, interviewing him for “The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour,” Joanna Simon asked Dr. Sacks how he would like to be remembered in 100 years.

“I would like it to be thought that I had listened carefully to what patients and others have told me,” he said, “that I’ve tried to imagine what it was like for them, and that I tried to convey this.

“And, to use a biblical term,” he added, “bore witness.”

He also bore witness to his own dwindling life, writing reflective essays even in his last days. On Aug. 10, his assistant, [Kate] Edgar, who described herself as his “collaborator, friend, researcher and editor” as well, wrote in an email: “He is still writing with great clarity. We are pretty sure he will go with fountain pen in hand.”

Several days later, a valedictory essay titled “Sabbath” appeared in The Times. In it, Dr. Sacks considered the importance of the Sabbath in human culture and concluded:

“And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”