Oliver Sacks, neurologist and author, dies aged 82 after long illness

31 Aug 2015

After only announcing his diagnosis of terminal cancer last February, the leading neurologist and much-loved author Oliver Sacks passed away last night (30 August) aged 82.

Much in the way that Stephen Hawking has transcended popular culture in the field of astrophysics, Oliver Sacks achieved similar notoriety for his work in neurology and exploring the strangeness of the human mind.

When he wasn’t working with patients to understand what their brain is doing to cause particular challenges in their lives, Sacks was writing books about these cases to bring conditions such as Asperger’s or Tourette’s to the public light.

Most notably, of course, one of Sacks’ best-known autobiographical works was Awakenings, which described his efforts in the late 1960s to use the drug L-Dopa to help those suffering from encephalitis lethargica, or ‘sleepy sickness’.

An explorer of the mind

Nearly 20 years later, the best-selling book was turned into an acclaimed Hollywood movie starring Robin Williams as a fictionalised version of Sacks with Robert De Niro playing the role of one of the patients he helped.

Despite suffering from the condition of face blindness – where someone has difficulty telling faces apart — Sacks continued to write a string of equally successful novels, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Musicophilia and An Anthropologist on Mars.

With his love of working with patients and exploring their minds, Sacks described himself as an explorer as such, having earlier in his career decided that he was not cut out for, or interested, in the clinical research field.

In his 1983 book, A Leg To Stand On, Sacks wrote: “I had always liked to see myself as a naturalist or explorer. I had explored many strange, neuropsychological lands — the furthest Arctics and Tropics of neurological disorder.”

‘I have loved and been loved’

Throughout his career, Sacks wrote more than 600 notebooks with many publications in scientific journals, but received what could be described as mild criticisms from some of his fellow neurologists for putting too much emphasis on his books’ storytelling over the clinical neurological case studies.

Regardless, Sacks worked almost up until the end, having throughout his years received acclaims and awards from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Science Foundation, the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Royal College of Physicians.

In February this year, however, Sacks wrote a piece in The New York Times, admitting that he had terminal cancer and explaining his thoughts on the subject.

At the time he wrote: “I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and travelled 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.”

Only last May, he spoke to the NPR podcast Radiolabs about his life, which you can listen to below.

Oliver Sacks portrait image via Mars Hill Church Seattle/Flickr

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic