Oliver Sacks changed how people think about and understand the brain, a subject the author and neurologist covered so eloquently in his many medical narratives, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings.
After a battle with cancer, Sacks died in his home in New York City at the age of 82. He had announced his struggle with terminal melanoma, which had spread to his liver, in the New York Times in February, detailing his state of mind as he faced death:
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. 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.
This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).
During his life, Sacks made many contributions to both the public and the medical profession's understanding of neurological disorders. He took an anthropological approach to medicine, writing moving and fascinating case histories about his patients' struggles with everything from migraines to Tourette's syndrome and colorblindness.
In a definitive Wired profile, science writer Steve Silberman explained how Sacks revolutionized medical writing. Sacks valued storytelling above data, pushing "against the tide of 100 years of medical practice":
Sacks transformed the genre of the clinical case report by turning it inside out. The goal of the traditional case history is to arrive at a diagnosis. For Sacks, the diagnosis is nearly beside the point — a preamble or an afterthought. Since many of the conditions chronicled by him are incurable, the force driving his tales is not the race for a remedy but the patient's striving to maintain his or her identity in a world utterly changed by the disorder.
Modern medicine had differentiated itself from the healing arts of the past by embracing systematic science, not patient narrative. A scientific approach to medical care — well-designed experiments such as randomized control trials — has given us life-saving surgeries, life-sustaining antibiotics, and vaccines.
"The compiling of detailed case histories was considered an indispensable tool of physicians from the time of Hippocrates," Silberman explained. "It fell into disrepute in the 20th century, as lab tests replaced time-consuming observation, merely 'anecdotal' evidence was dismissed in favor of generalizable data, and the house call was rendered quaintly obsolete."
Beautifully rendered "anecdotes" helped Sacks find a public audience with his best-selling books like An Anthropologist on Mars (1995) and The Mind’s Eye (2010). His 1973 book, Awakenings, was made into a 1990 film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was adapted into an opera — among many other translations of his work.
This popularity made some of his peers uneasy. As Sacks wrote in his recently published memoir On the Move, he was met with suspicion by his fellow neurologists: "I had, it seemed, defined myself as a 'popular' writer, and if one is popular, then, ipso facto, one is not to be taken seriously."
To hear Sacks tell it, writing books for mass consumption was once considered one of the worst things a doctor could do. In On the Move, Sacks recalls the day his first book was published in 1970. Born in 1933 to two prominent doctors, Sacks happened to be staying in his family's London home at the time.
"My father came into my bedroom, pale and shaking," Sacks wrote, "holding the Times in his hands. He said, fearfully, ‘You’re in the papers.’"
The article in question was actually a glowing review of Sacks's book, Migraine. "But so far as my father was concerned, this made no difference; I had committed a grave impropriety, if not a criminal folly, by being in the papers." At the time, popular writing by physicians was viewed as something vulgar, perhaps even a breach of medical ethics.
Nowadays, of course, that's changed. Thanks to the work of Sacks and others doctors, medical researchers are often encouraged to communicate with a broader audience. Indeed, as Sacks told it, even his parents eventually accepted his career as a best-selling writer as the glowing reviews kept coming in.
According to the Times, there are more than a million copies of his books in print in the United States.
To learn more about Sacks, see:
- His New Yorker writings here and his New York Review of Books writings here
- Our story about why he was ambivalent about becoming a bestselling author
- Silberman's definitive profile at Wired
- Lawrence Weschler's collection of diary entries about him in Vanity Fair
- This Radio Lab episode profiling him