When people die, there's a tendency to reduce them to something less than they were, to impose the neat arc of narrative on their otherwise messy and complex existence.
In the case of Oliver Sacks, the author and neurologist who died Sunday, this would be a tragedy. If you've ever had the pleasure of reading anything he's written, you'll immediately understand why. As you learn in his recent memoir, On the Move, he was so much more than a bearded and bespectacled New York intellectual — spending large swaths of his life bodybuilding and riding motorcycles through the United States. His many books, such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings, reveal a rare kind of generous, expansive, polymathic mind that explained the scientific basis of neurological disorders in narratives that move you to tears.
Many very talented writers have weighed in on his contributions to medicine, literature, and humanity. I've pulled together a few of the best, which I hope you'll read as an entry point to his contributions and understanding why he was such an important human being.
1) Oliver Sacks masterfully melded science and storytelling
At a time when there was a move away from narrative storytelling in medicine toward more data-driven and quantitative approaches, Sacks ran in the opposite direction. He took the approach of an anthropologist, diving into the particulars of patients' case histories to uncover insights about illness and the human condition. Science writer and author of the new book NeuroTribes, Steve Silberman, described this brilliantly in his 2002 Wired profile of Sacks:
In telling the stories of his patients, 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. In Sacks' case histories, the hero is not the doctor, or even medicine itself. His heroes are the patients who learned to tap an innate capacity for growth and adaptation amid the chaos of their disordered minds: the Touretter who became a successful surgeon, the painter who lost his color vision but found an even stronger aesthetic identity by working in black and white. Mastering new skills, these patients became even more whole, more powerfully individual, than when they were "well."
2) Sacks loved people
In the New York Times yesterday, book critic Michiko Kakutani explained that Sacks's love of people — his appreciation for their quirks and foibles — is part of what made him both a great writer and a great doctor:
A man, with acute amnesia, who loses three decades of his life and lives wholly in the immediate present, unable to remember anything for more than a minute or two. Savant twins, who can’t deal with the most mundane tasks of daily life but can perform astonishing numerical tricks, like memorizing 300-digit numbers or rattling off 20-digit primes ...
Dr. Sacks depicted such people not as scientific curiosities but as individuals who become as real to us as characters by Chekhov (another doctor who wrote with uncommon empathy and insight). He was concerned with the impact that his patients’ neurological disorders had on their day-to-day routines, their relationships and their inner lives. His case studies became literary narratives as dramatic, richly detailed and compelling as those by Freud and Luria — stories that underscored not the marginality of his patients’ experiences, but their part in the shared human endeavor and the flux and contingencies of life.
3) Sacks had deep reservoirs of compassion
As part of caring deeply about people, Sacks had large reservoirs of compassion for others. This New York Times obituary, by Gregory Cowles, describes this very well in an anecdote about some of the patients Sacks became obsessed with during his tenure at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx. These patients also inspired his book Awakenings:
When Dr. Sacks started his clinical career there, in 1966, many of the patients had been catatonic, locked inside themselves for decades as a result of their "sleeping sickness."
Dr. Sacks gave them the drug L-dopa, which was just beginning to be recognized as a treatment for similar symptoms in patients with Parkinson’s, then watched as they emerged into a world they did not recognize. Some responded better than others — both to the drug and to their changed circumstances — and Dr. Sacks used his book to explore the differences and celebrate his patients’ limited rebirth.
"I love to discover potential in people who aren’t thought to have any," he told People magazine in 1986.
4) Sacks celebrated human resilience — even in the face of illness
At the New Yorker, medical writer and physician Jerome Groopman explained that Sacks celebrated human resilience — a theme that permeated his work and shaped his understanding of illness:
Illness, he made plain, need not rob us of our essential selves ... Sacks understood our frequent ability to adapt, and emphasized that the capacity for someone to adapt to a particular condition—amnesia, blindness, deafness, migraines, phantom-limb syndrome, Asperger’s syndrome, and countless other conditions—cannot be known from the outset. These concepts grew from his study of zoology and evolution at Oxford. He similarly saw in medicine a great diversity among individual patients, and the inherent uncertainty of the outcome of a particular disorder.
5) Sacks understood human suffering
Sacks knew he was gay from a very young age, but only came out publicly just before his death in his 2015 memoir On the Move. This Washington Post article, by Justin Moyer, describes Sacks's mother's reaction to finding out that her teenage son was gay, and gives some insight into what made him such a sensitive observer:
"You are an abomination," she said. "I wish you had never been born."
Sacks wrote that his mother’s words had to be understood in the context of the times. Homosexual acts were not decriminalized in England until the 1960s; his mother, he wrote, "had an Orthodox upbringing." Yet, her denunciation would prove crushing to a young man about to embark on a brilliant career as a psychiatrist.
"Her words haunted me for much of my life and played a major part in inhibiting and injecting with guilt what should have been a free and joyous expression of sexuality," he wrote.
6) Sacks changed how people think about the brain
Sacks covered the brain eloquently in his many medical narratives. These works not only engaged public audiences, they inspired generations of researchers and clinicians. A lovely tribute, published yesterday by the British clinical psychologist and author Vaughan Bell, explains why:
I took along my original copy of The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, hoping to surprise him with the news that he was responsible for my career in brain science.
As the talk started, the host mentioned that ‘it was likely that many of us became neuroscientists because we read Oliver Sacks when we started out’. To my secret disappointment, about half the lecture hall vigorously nodded in response.
The reality is that Sacks’s role in my career was neither surprising nor particularly special. He inspired a generation of neuroscientists to see brain science as a gateway to our common humanity and humanity as central to the scientific study of the brain.