Poet laureate of medicine

Dr Oliver Sacks said in 2012 that he had been in psychoanalysis for more than 45 years and celibate since the mid-1960s because he was essentially married to his work.
Dr Oliver Sacks said in 2012 that he had been in psychoanalysis for more than 45 years and celibate since the mid-1960s because he was essentially married to his work. PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Neurologist Oliver Sacks wrote eloquently on the disorders of the brain, but said his famous Awakenings case was a heaven-and-hell experience

NEW YORK • Oliver Sacks, the neurologist who studied the intricacies of the brain and wrote eloquently about them in books such as Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, died on Sunday at the age of 82, his personal assistant said.

The British-born Sacks, who announced last February that he had terminal liver cancer, died at his home in New York City with his partner, the American writer Billy Hayes, and his personal assistant, Ms Kate Edgar, at his side.

"He definitely wrote to the very end," said Edgar, noting that in his final days, Sacks never stopped penning a legacy that will be published posthumously and may include "several books".

Sacks wrote the 1973 book Awakenings, which detailed his real-life experience with patients he studied in the 1960s who suffered from a condition known as encephalitis lethargica. They had been untreated and virtually frozen in a catatonic state for decades until Sacks administered an experimental psychoactive drug known as L-dopa.

The drug had an explosive "awakening" effect on the patients, but the experiment trailed into failure as they developed tics, seizures or manic behaviour and had trouble adjusting to the contemporary world.

Awakenings became the basis of a 1990 Oscar-nominated movie, starring Robin Williams as a character based on Sacks and Robert De Niro as one of his patients.

"This had become a heaven- and-hell experience," Sacks told People magazine of his Awakenings case. "But the patients would just have died without having even a glimpse of that life, had they not been given L-dopa."

He wrote last February that a rare melanoma of the eye, diagnosed nine years earlier, was found to have spread to his liver.

"I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now, I am face to face with dying," he wrote in The New York Times. "It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can."

A professor of neurology at New York University's School of Medicine, he was born to doctor parents in London and his mother was one of the first female surgeons in England. Educated at Oxford, he emigrated to Canada, arriving in New York in 1965 where he taught, wrote and practised for the rest of his life.

The NYU School of Medicine said in a statement that his "breakthrough work" in the fields of neurology and neuro psychiatry led to important understandings in these fields. "Equally important, his prolific, award-winning writing touched the lives of millions around the world," it added.

Called "a kind of poet laureate of medicine" and "one of the great clinical writers of the 20th century" by The New York Times, Sacks wrote more than a dozen books.

His best-known work was 1985's The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, a collection of case studies of people whose brains had misfired, including having lost memories, gross perception problems and Tourette's syndrome.

He explained to readers how the brain handles everything from autism to savantism, colour- blindness to Tourette's syndrome, and how his patients could adapt to their unconventional minds.

His view, as expressed in his 1995 book An Anthropologist On Mars, was that such disorders also came with a potential that could bring out "latent powers, developments, evolutions, forms of life that might never be seen, or even be imaginable".

A man whose Tourette's syndrome made him uncontrollably spout obscenities also caused compulsive physical movements that made him a skilled jazz drummer.

"The brain is the most intricate mechanism in the universe," he said in a People magazine interview. "I couldn't imagine spending my life with kidneys."

In Hallucinations (2012), he ranges across mythology, folk culture literature and his personal experience to explore sensory distortions and their place in the human experience. His 2007 book Musicophilia pondered the power of music to move and to heal, with Sacks himself as "the book's moral argument", in the words of one reviewer.

He also writes about the frightening psychotic episodes of his schizophrenic brother, Michael, and his own feelings of shame for not spending more time with him - and his simultaneous need to get away from him, which led in part to his move to the United States in the 1960s.

Sacks' own psyche was quite complicated.

At times in his life, he struggled with drug abuse and acute shyness and he suffered from prosopagnosia, a disorder that leaves victims unable to recognise faces. In 2012, he said he had been in psychoanalysis for more than 45 years and celibate since the mid-1960s because he was essentially married to his work.

However, in his autobiography On The Move, released in May, he wrote of falling in love at age 77 with Hayes.

Inclined to living "at a certain distance from life", he writes of falling in love - "(for God's sake) I was in my 77th year" - and that meant relinquishing "the habits of a lifetime's solitude", including decades of meals mostly of cereal or sardines.

As news of his death filtered out, tributes poured in from fellow writers.

"He was like no one in medicine or writing," wrote the surgeon and New Yorker writer Atul Gawande. "I will dearly miss him."

J.K. Rowling called him "great, humane and inspirational" in a Twitter message that quoted from his recent essay on his impending death.

"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," he had written.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 01, 2015, with the headline 'Poet laureate of medicine'. Print Edition | Subscribe