Author who wrote Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat revealed in February that he was in the late stages of terminal cancer
Oliver Sacks. His book Awakenings inspired the Oscar-nominated film of the same name which starred Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. Photograph: Adam Scourfield/BBC/AP Photo/APOliver Sacks, the eminent neurologist and writer, has died at his home in New York City. He was 82.
The cause of death was cancer, Kate Edgar, his longtime personal assistant, told the New York Times, which had published an essay by Sacks in February revealing that an earlier melanoma in his eye had spread to his liver and that he was in the late stages of terminal cancer.
The London-born academic, whose book Awakenings inspired the Oscar-nominated film of the same name, wrote: “A month ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out – a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver.”
Sacks was the author of several books about unusual medical conditions, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and The Island of the Colourblind. Awakenings was based on his work with patients treated with a drug that woke them up after years in a catatonic state. The 1990 film version, starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, was nominated for three Oscars including best picture.
A figure of the arts as much as the sciences, Sacks counted among his friends WH Auden, Thom Gunn and Jonathan Miller. As tributes were paid, Michiko Kakutani, the New York Times writer, praised his ability to make connections across the disciplines.
She wrote: “[He] was a polymath and an ardent humanist, and whether he was writing about his patients, or his love of chemistry or the power of music, he leapfrogged among disciplines, shedding light on the strange and wonderful interconnectedness of life – the connections between science and art, physiology and psychology, the beauty and economy of the natural world and the magic of the human imagination.”
Writing in the Guardian in May, author Lisa Appignanesi spoke of Sacks’s ability to transform his subjects into grand characters.
“For all their lacks and losses, or what the medics call ‘deficits’, Sacks’s subjects have a capacious 19th-century humanity, “ she wrote. “No mere objects of hasty clinical notes, or articles in professional journals, his “patients” are transformed by his interest, sympathetic gaze and ability to convey optimism in tragedy into grand characters who can transcend their conditions. They emerge as the very types of our neuroscientific age.”
Sacks was an avid chronicler of his own life. In his memoir, Uncle Tungsten, he wrote about his early boyhood, his medical family, and the chemical passions that fostered his love of science.
He was sent away from London during wartime bombing and endured bullying at boarding school. Feeling “imprisoned and powerless”, he developed a passion for horses, skiing and motorbikes. He got his first motorbike when he was 18. On the Move, the second instalment in his memoir, pictured a youthful, leather-and-jean-clad Sacks astride a large motorbike, not unlike Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones.
Growing up, he witnessed the growing torment of his schizophrenic brother and his treatment with drugs. Appignanesi said the seeds of Sacks’s later affinity with patients undoubtedly in part lies in that experience.
The memoirs reveal that his mother said: “I wish you had never been born”, when she learned about his homosexuality. He writes of a few love affairs, his road trips and obsessional bodybuilding.
Sacks had nearly 1,000 journals and more letters and clinical notes upon which to draw for his autobiography.
When he revealed that he had terminal cancer, Sacks quoted one of his favourite philosophers, David Hume. On discovering that he was mortally ill at 65, Hume wrote: “I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution. I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.
“I am ... a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social, and cheerful humour, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.”
• This article was amended on 30 August 2015 to correct a misspelling of Oliver Sacks’s surname.
By KATE MURPHY
Published: July 16, 2011
What’s on your mind? The Sunday Review asked Oliver Sacks, a physician, author and professor of neurology and psychiatry at the Columbia University Medical Center.
Mike McGregor/Contour, via Getty Images
I read a lot of biographies, which are like patient case histories, really. I liked “The House of Wittgenstein: A Family at War.” It’s about the family of Ludwig Wittgenstein, who is an icon in the philosophical world and one of my favorite philosophers. His brother, Paul, was a one-armed pianist who lost his arm during the First World War and being wealthy, he commissioned pieces for the left hand. Three other brothers committed suicide. It was a very interesting book and was written by Alexander Waugh, who was the grandson of Evelyn Waugh.
WATCHING “Star Trek,” the original series or “The Next Generation.” It has strong characters that I find believable. I visited the set of “Star Trek” several years ago and met Brent Spiner, the actor who played Data. I told him he was the hero of autistic people everywhere. I don’t think he knew what to make of that.
For laughter, fun and joy, I turn to the Ealing Comedies with Alec Guinness. One of my favorites is “Kind Hearts and Coronets,” where Alex Guinness plays eight different characters.
FOLLOWING I don’t know what Facebook and Twitter are since I don’t use a computer. But a friend gave me a hat with a built-in compass, since I have no sense of direction. It beeps when you face north and the intensity of the beeps shows how close you are. I like to think it’s improving my awareness but truthfully, I don’t think I’m getting any better. And I get a little embarrassed wearing a hat that beeps.
CONSUMING Herring, especially at this time of year when the tender new catch comes in from Holland, and Zico coconut water — I drink a gallon a week.
COLLECTING I buy lumps of metals because I’m a periodic-table freak. I bought rhenium for my 75th birthday, osmium for my 76th birthday, iridium for my 77th birthday. But I may not be able to afford more than a tiny pellet of platinum for my 78th birthday this year.
閱讀我重讀波德萊爾的“人造天堂”，我第一次讀 - 它必須是50年前。我正在寫關於幻覺，各種幻覺，是美好和波德萊爾在他的描述他的經驗與印度大麻和鴉片。我看了很多的傳記，這就像病人病歷，真的。我喜歡“房子維特根斯坦：一個家庭在戰爭中，”這是對家庭的維特根斯坦，誰是圖標的哲學世界，一個我最喜歡的哲學家。他的兄弟，保羅，是一次武裝鋼琴家誰失去了他的手臂在第一次世界大戰和正在富裕，他委託作品的左手。其他三個兄弟自殺。這是一個非常有趣的書，作者是亞歷山大沃，誰是孫子伊夫林沃。看“星際迷航”原系列或“下一代”，具有很強的人物，我覺得可信。我參觀了集“星際迷航”幾年前，並會見了布倫特 Spiner，演員誰發揮的數據。我告訴他，他是英雄自閉症的人隨處可見。我不認為他知道該怎麼做。對於笑聲，有趣，快樂，我想談談伊令喜劇與亞歷克吉尼斯。其中我最喜歡的是“有心人心臟和冠冕”裡扮演亞歷吉尼斯八種不同的字符。下面，我不知道什麼是Facebook和Twitter，因為我不使用電腦。但是，朋友給了我一頂帽子帶內置指南針，因為我沒有方向感。當你面對這聲北部和強度的蜂鳴聲顯示了如何關閉你。我喜歡認為這是提高我的意識，但說實話，我不認為我得到任何好轉。而我得到一個有點不好意思戴帽子的蜂鳴聲。消費鯡魚，特別是在每年的這個時候，當新的招標趕上部分來自荷蘭和濟科的椰子水 - 我喝了一個星期加侖。我買的蒐集塊狀金屬的，因為我是一個週期表的怪胎。我買了錸我75歲生日，我的76歲生日鋨，銥為我的77歲生日。但我可能無法負擔超過一個微小的鉑顆粒為我今年78歲生日。凱特墨菲是一名記者在休斯頓誰定期為紐約時報。
我回憶他的書房，我曾經在他的書房裏看到他的靈魂。我稍稍明白，他所嚮往那種蠻荒時期的原始古老，那種叫deep time的感受，與宇宙自然合一的感受。是的，他是一個活在deep time的單身漢， 他是少數具有deeptime 氣質的醫生與作家。