Oliver Sacks, the renowned neurologist and writer whose compassionate profiles of patients suffering from neurological disorders illuminated the struggle to cope with life and whose candid writings in his final months offered an equally striking picture of how to prepare for death, died on Sunday. He was 82.
His death was reported by The New York Times.
For nearly 50 years, Sacks worked with and documented the lives of patients with a staggering list of disorders, ranging from Tourette Syndrome and Parkinson’s to perceptual difficulties, as made famous in his collection The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat.
His work favored narrative and texture rather than pure clinical writing, likely helping to find a wider audience. That approach was criticized by some as opportunistic, yet nonetheless served as a role model for future medical writers like Atul Gawande.
Sacks is perhaps best known for his early book Awakenings, originally published in 1973, which offers an account of patients who suffered from “sleeping sickness,” also known as encaphalitis lethargica. These individuals had lived in a frozen state for years — until Sacks showed up to test a new drug.
Awakenings was later the subject of an Oscar-nominated film of the same name, starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.
Sacks was every bit as unique and, at times, lost as the patients he studied. In On The Move, his memoir, Sacks opens up about early beatings in school in London, discovering his homosexuality and the rift it created with his Jewish family and his search for meaning, which led him to his neurological work and ultimately writing.
“I have never had such a strong feeling, a feeling of having made something real and of some value, as I did with that first book,” he wrote in On The Move, referring to Migraine, first published in 1970.
In February, after learning he had terminal cancer, Sacks published a series of articles for The Times about his re-doubled focus on work and loved ones, about the meaningful life he’d stitched together and about coming face-to-face with his own mortality — written with the same elegance and compassion as his works on other individuals.
“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude,” Sacks wrote in February. “I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
“Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
In a testament to the breadth of his work and reach, luminaries from the rarely intersecting worlds of medicine, literature and Hollywood all offered tributes to Sacks in the hours after his death was announced.
Woke up to find my hero Oliver Sacks has died. He was like no one in medicine or writing. I will dearly miss him. http://t.co/Bf9zZASQHw
— Atul Gawande (@Atul_Gawande) August 30, 2015
RIP Dr. Oliver Sacks. Best way to remember him is to re-read him.
— Harry Shearer (@theharryshearer) August 30, 2015
We will miss Oliver Sacks terribly. Last time we’d met Oliver spoke w/ boyish enthusiasm about “beautiful” minerals— & many other things.
— Joyce Carol Oates (@JoyceCarolOates) August 30, 2015
Last tweet from Oliver Sacks -6 days ago https://t.co/8CtWyb2Mee
— mia farrow (@MiaFarrow) August 30, 2015
— Dave Itzkoff (@ditzkoff) August 30, 2015