RIP Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)

Sacks's early years: the biker and weightlifter. From radiolab.org
Sacks’s early years: the biker and weightlifter. From radiolab.org

We knew him as a writer who bridged the worlds of science, art, and philosophy more dazzlingly than anyone before him. In works such as The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat and Awakenings, he made neurology accessible for the general reader. Not only accessible, but funny and human.

It was only with his autobiography, On the Move: A Life, published in 2015, that we learned the true richness of his experiences. He was a British-born biker and a weightlifter who first made his name squatting 600 lbs on a California beach, and dabbled in all kinds of 60s era drugs.

Then he gave it all up for a medical career. He got a lucky break due to several unlucky breaks. Beginning as a researcher, he found he was too clumsy. He later explained, “I lost samples. I broke machines. Finally they said to me: ‘Sacks, you’re a menace. Get out. Go see patients. They matter less.’” This was the making of him.

He was always a neurologist with a difference. He focused on case histories and demystified obscure illnesses by writing about them with clarity, style and humor. His wide-ranging mind meant he could write brilliantly on subjects as diverse as amnesia, music, Freud, ferns, phantom limbs, and pre-Columbian history.

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Though shy, Sacks was immensely popular – he befriended poets and actors, musicians and physicians. Compassionate and original, brilliant and kind, Sacks shed just a little light on a dark area of the human experience. What more can we ask of a life?

 

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