Neurologist who touched a wide audience
Oliver Sacks: July 9th, 1933 - August 30th, 2015
Oliver Sacks undoubtedly drew from life in his writings though he may have used a measure of embellishment when it suited his purpose. Photograph: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
(With his absorbing and accessible yet profound accounts of neurological cases and conditions, Oliver Sacks, who has died aged 82, brought the clinical science of the brain to life for countless readers.
Sacks’s second book, Awakenings (1973), appeared when he was 40 and brought his work to a wide audience.
Effusively praised by the critics, it describes the effects of L-Dopa, then recently recognised as an effective treatment for Parkinson’s disease, in a group of patients who had lived in something close to suspended animation since the epidemic of the “sleeping sickness”, encephalitis lethargica, swept the world at the end of the first World War.
Awakenings later became the subject of the first documentary in the ITV Discovery series (1974), and a successful feature film, starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.
Sacks’s many subsequent books ranged across and beyond the territory of clinical neurology, but his work always remained rooted in his fascination with the brain.
The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985) and An Anthropologist on Mars (1995) are collections of essays on patients with disorders of sensation and perception (such as the agnosic Dr P, who mistook his wife for a hat, and the colour-blind painter Mr I); of memory, language and movement (like “Witty Ticcy Ray” and the surgeon Dr Carl Bennett, both sufferers from Tourette syndrome, with its combination of intense physical tics and psychological compulsions); and of “social cognition” more broadly, as in the case of the autistic academic Temple Grandin, who described herself feeling as if she were “an anthropologist on Mars”, so mysterious did she find the ways of her fellow humans.
In Seeing Voices (1989), Sacks explored the experiences of the deaf; in The Mind’s Eye (2010), he returned to disorders of vision.
Sacks’s natural sympathy for people with neurological disorders or impairments, so powerfully felt and expressed, permeates his writings.
He was born in north London. His father, Samuel, was a general practitioner, his mother, Muriel, a surgeon and pathologist. His future interests and talents were shaped and nurtured by his large, rumbustious, cultivated, polymathic Jewish family. His education at St Paul’s school introduced him to Jonathan Miller, later, like Sacks, also a doctor and writer.
From St Paul’s, he moved on to study medicine at Queen’s College, Oxford, and later the Middlesex hospital, graduating in 1958. After completing his house posts in Britain, in 1961 he moved to the US to train in neurology.
Sacks moved in 1965 to New York, which was to be his main home from then on. From 1966 he worked as a consulting neurologist for the Beth Abraham hospital in the Bronx, and he held academic posts at New York and Columbia universities.
He was a shy man, and his private life remained very private, until the publication of his compelling autobiography, On the Move (2015). It told of his early interest in gay sex and fascination with motorbikes, leathers and drug experiences, and his 35 years of celibacy until, in 2008, he became the partner of the writer Bill Hayes, who survives him.
Sacks had his detractors. One common accusation is that his writings involve a “neurological freak show” which allowed him to profit unjustifiably from his practice. His more numerous admirers find this accusation wide of the mark. The accusation that he wrote “fairy tales” is arguably more telling. His case histories lack the meticulous measurements and experimental detail that contemporary science expects of its practitioners.
Sacks undoubtedly drew from life in his writings though he may have used a measure of embellishment when it suited his purpose. But his readers turn to him, not for mathematical precision, but for his splendidly readable prose, sympathetic portraits of his patients, broad intellectual horizons and an abiding sense of wonder at the world.