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Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks: July 9, 1933–August 30, 2015

It was only tonight that I discovered that Sacks died, finally losing his long battle with cancer. There is every indication that his mind was functional until the end, that he remained him. For a man like Sacks, a neurologist whose life and career were devoted to understanding the wonder and mystery of the human brain–and the soul that may, in part, reside there for a time–that was a blessing, and a fitting coda to a wonderful story.

Over the years, I’ve read all of Sacks’ books, but the book that had the greatest effect on me, and therefore, my students, is Awakenings. Published in 1973, it is an amazing account of diseases of the brain, and the struggles of Sacks’ patients to remain fully human, to embrace what it means of be human. The guiding light of Sacks’ life was the struggle to understand consciousness.

Only my advanced placement students read the book, but all see the 1990 movie of the same name, starring Robin Williams as Dr. Malcom Sayer (Sacks) and Robert De Niro as his patient, Leonard Lowe. I tell the kids it’s one of the best movies ever made, despite the fact there is no nudity, no sex, no car chases, nothing explodes, there is no shooting, and no gratuitous bloodshed. I assure them they’re going to like it very much, and they inevitably ask, skeptical teenagers that they are, if this is a movie I’d like, or one they’d like. Afterward, I always get e-mails from parents thanking me, because their child made them buy the movie and watch it together. Anything that can do that, gentle readers, is truly valuable and extraordinary.

Robin Williams in "Awakenings"

Robin Williams in “Awakenings”

I wrote a brief article on that movie on the occasion of Robin Williams’ death, with this note:

There is greater irony in Williams’ death than I imagined.  Fox News reports Williams’ wife has made public Williams’ early stage Parkinson’s Disease public.  In Awakenings, William’s character [based on Sacks] treated patients whose symptoms were similar to Parkinson’s disease.

Awakenings was not only the story of Sacks’ patients, for whom he cared deeply, but of himself, a clinical autobiography. In writing autobiography, the central conflict is always the “I then” versus the “I now.” This battle represents the very human urge to make one’s younger and less wise self more perceptive, capable, better than they really were. Sacks does not give in to this small bit of hubris, and in his caring for his patients, reveals himself. You, gentle readers, will be better for knowing Sacks–and his patients–through his observations, and for seeing the movie, which takes substantial, but ultimately justified, liberties with real events. The Director, Penny Marshall, used Sacks as a consultant on the movie, and in Dr. Sayer’s benediction: “the human spirit is more powerful than any drug,” captured the essences of Awakenings, and perhaps, of Sacks.

The New York Times published an article by Sacks–I like to think of it as a self-eulogy–in July of 2015, the month before his death. He knew his time was short. Take the link and read the whole thing. But here is a bit of the man: 

I look forward eagerly, almost greedily, to the weekly arrival of journals like Nature and Science, and turn at once to articles on the physical sciences — not, as perhaps I should, to articles on biology and medicine. It was the physical sciences that provided my first enchantment as a boy.

In a recent issue of Nature, there was a thrilling article by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek on a new way of calculating the slightly different masses of neutrons and protons. The new calculation confirms that neutrons are very slightly heavier than protons — the ratio of their masses being 939.56563 to 938.27231 — a trivial difference, one might think, but if it were otherwise the universe as we know it could never have developed. The ability to calculate this, Dr. Wilczek wrote, ‘encourages us to predict a future in which nuclear physics reaches the level of precision and versatility that atomic physics has already achieved’ — a revolution that, alas, I will never see.

Francis Crick was convinced that ‘the hard problem’ — understanding how the brain gives rise to consciousness — would be solved by 2030. ‘You will see it,’ he often said to my neuroscientist friend Ralph, ‘and you may, too, Oliver, if you live to my age.’ Crick lived to his late 80s, working and thinking about consciousness till the last. Ralph died prematurely, at age 52, and now I am terminally ill, at the age of 82. I have to say that I am not too exercised by ‘the hard problem’ of consciousness — indeed, I do not see it as a problem at all; but I am sad that I will not see the new nuclear physics that Dr. Wilczek envisages, nor a thousand other breakthroughs in the physical and biological sciences.

A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky ‘powdered with stars’ (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.

I told my friends Kate and Allen, ‘I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.’

‘We’ll wheel you outside,’ they said.

I have been comforted, since I wrote in February about having metastatic cancer, by the hundreds of letters I have received, the expressions of love and appreciation, and the sense that (despite everything) I may have lived a good and useful life. I remain very glad and grateful for all this — yet none of it hits me as did that night sky full of stars.

Sacks’ was a life lived joyously, because it was dedicated to the benefit of others. What better epitaph for any man?

If you don’t know of Oliver Sacks, let this be only a beginning. You’ll be a better person for having made his acquaintance. In his books, in Awakenings, and in those that knew and loved him, his consciousness lives on in the memory and legacy of a life lived well.

Ave atque vale, Dr. Sacks.

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