Oliver Sacks, a neurologist and author who wrote compelling case studies of people with brain disorders in best-selling books such as “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” and chronicled his own case of terminal cancer, has died. He was 82.
Sacks died Sunday at his home in New York City, the New York Times said, citing Kate Edgar, his personal assistant.
In an essay published in the newspaper in February, he announced that a rare type of ocular cancer for which he had been treated about a decade earlier had recently metastasized in his liver.
“Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” he said.
“This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”
Sacks, a professor of neurology at New York University School of Medicine, wrote more than a dozen books, most of them accounts of patients with brain conditions causing them to experience phantom limbs or hallucinations. In Musicophilia, published in 2007, he wrote about people who “lack the neural apparatus for appreciating tones or melodies.” When a patient with total amusia, a condition that can make music sound like random clattering, was asked what she heard when a symphony was played, she replied that it was similar to hearing pots and pans falling on a kitchen floor.
He was less a groundbreaking clinical physician than a gifted storyteller who combined science and philosophy with empathy and deep curiosity about his patients’ personal histories. In a 2015 Vanity Fair article, he described himself as “a clinical ontologist, one for whom the diagnostic question is: How are you? How do you Be?” The New York Times called him “the poet laureate of medicine.”
He often focused less on an individual’s disability than on how a neural abnormality can create a surprising ability. A man whose Tourette syndrome made him uncontrollably spout obscenities also caused compulsive physical movements that made him a skilled jazz drummer. A woman diagnosed with autism became a designer of humane slaughterhouses because, she said, her illness made her able to think like a cow.
His first book, “Migraine,” published in 1971, described the debilitating headaches that Sacks himself suffered. “Any layman who is at all interested in the relation between body and mind, even if he does not understand all of it, will find the book as fascinating as I have,” the poet W.H. Auden wrote in the New York Review of Books.
Sacks’ 1973 book “Awakenings” focused on so-called human statues, victims of encephalitis lethargica, a disease that left patients in coma-like states for decades. Using the then-experimental drug L-dopa, he roused them, only to see some relapse. His research was the basis for the 1990 movie of the same title starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.
Oliver Wolf Sacks was born on July 9, 1933, in London. His parents, Samuel Sacks, and the former Muriel Elsie Landau, were physicians. His mother, one of the first women surgeons in England, would sometimes bring home deformed fetuses in jars to teach her children about biology, Sacks wrote in his 2015 memoir, “On the Move.”
One day when he was 18 years old, in response to his father inquiring about his sexuality, the teenager said that he liked boys, although he hadn’t yet acted on his feelings.
“You are an abomination,” his mother said the following morning, Sacks wrote in an essay published this month in the New York Times. “I wish you had never been born.”
After attending boarding school during World War II, Sacks entered Oxford University, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1954 and graduated from medical school in 1958. He left England in 1960 to continue his medical training in the U.S. at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco and the University of California at Los Angeles.
During his years in California, Sacks also rode a motorcycle with the Hell’s Angels and was a weightlifter. At one point, he said, he held the state’s record for the squat thrust, lifting 600 pounds. He wrote about his experiences taking hallucinogenic drugs such as LSD and a “near-suicidal addiction to amphetamines” at the time.
“Every dose an overdose,” he said, according to a 2015 Vanity Fair story, adding that his drug use ended when he left California.
In 1965, he moved to New York to work at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, teaching neurology and treating patients. He spent more than four decades there before joining the faculty at Columbia University in 2007 as a professor of neurology and psychiatry and also taught creative writing. Five years later, he started working at NYU’s medical school.
“I became a neurologist rather than, say, a cardiologist, because there’s nothing for an intelligent man to be interested in in cardiology,” he said, according to Vanity Fair. “Neurology is the only branch of medicine that could sustain a thinking man.”