‘Awakenings’ Author, Famed Neurologist Oliver Sacks Dies at 82

31 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A look at the life of neurologist Dr Oliver Sacks.

Sacks was best known for his books The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Awakenings, which became a 1990 feature film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.Neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks was born in London in 1933 into a family of physicians and scientists – his mother was a surgeon and his father a general practitioner.The cause of death was the cancer, Kate Edgar, his longtime personal assistant, told the New York Times, which had published an essay by Sacks in February revealing that an earlier melanoma in his eye had spread to his liver and that he was in the late stages of terminal cancer. Sacks cared for, and wrote about, people with unusual brain disorders that left them catatonic — or haunted by Irish lullabies, or unable to recognize their own spouses.

He earned his medical degree at Oxford University (Queen’s College), and did residencies and fellowship work at Mt Zion Hospital in San Francisco and at UCLA in the US. The London-born academic, whose book ‘Awakenings’ inspired the Oscar-nominated film of the same name, wrote: “A month ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. In a 2007 NPR interview, he said, “While I’ve always wanted to get people’s stories, I also like to know what’s going on in the brain, and how this wonderful two or three pounds of stuff in the head is able to underlie our imagination, underlie our soul, our individuality.” Sacks’ ability to combine science and storytelling eventually led to prestigious academic posts and best-selling books. From 2007 to 2012, he served as a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Centre, and he was also designated the university’s first Columbia University Artist. In 1966, Dr Sacks began working as a consulting neurologist for Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, a chronic care hospital where he encountered an extraordinary group of patients – many of whom had spent decades in strange, frozen states, like human statues, unable to initiate movement.

He recognised these patients as survivors of the great pandemic of sleepy sickness that had swept the world from 1916 to 1927, and treated them with a then-experimental drug, L-dopa, which enabled them to come back to life. They became the subjects of his book, Awakenings, which later inspired a play by Harold Pinter – A Kind of Alaska – and the Oscar-nominated feature film Awakenings with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams. He investigated the world of deaf people and sign language in Seeing Voices, and a rare community of colour blind people in The Island of the Colorblind. She wrote: “[He] was a polymath and an ardent humanist, and whether he was writing about his patients, or his love of chemistry or the power of music, he leapfrogged among disciplines, shedding light on the strange and wonderful interconnectedness of life — the connections between science and art, physiology and psychology, the beauty and economy of the natural world and the magic of the human imagination.” Writing in the Guardian in May, author Lisa Appignanesi spoke of Sachs’s ability to transform his subjects into grand characters. “For all their lacks and losses, or what the medics call ‘deficits’, Sacks’s subjects have a capacious 19th-century humanity, “ she wrote. “No mere objects of hasty clinical notes, or articles in professional journals, his “patients” are transformed by his interest, sympathetic gaze and ability to convey optimism in tragedy into grand characters who can transcend their conditions.

By that time, the exam had already started. “So Oliver literally staggered into this room with about 15 or 20 students busily writing into their blue books and asked the professor if he could take the essay exam,” Devinsky says. “And the professor looked at him kind of like: Are you sure you are in the right place?” “Rendering into words is absolutely an instinct with me,” he said. “I used to be called ‘Inky’ when I was a boy. His autobiographical Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood was published in 2001, and his most recent books have been Musicophilia, The Mind’s Eye, and Hallucinations. He was an honorary fellow of both the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and held honorary degrees from many universities, including Oxford, the Karolinska Institute, Georgetown, Bard, Gallaudet, Tufts, and the Catholic University of Peru. Sacks also liked to risk death while riding his motorcycle through Topanga Canyon. “He would go down the canyon with his eyes closed sometimes,” Devinsky says. “He would go through lights sometimes at rapid speed feeling he could make it and dodge all the cars.” In 1965, Sacks moved to New York City, where he focused on writing and medicine.

On the Move, the second instalment in his memoir, pictured a youthful, leather-and-jean-clad Sacks astride a large motorbike, not unlike Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones. Devinsky says from time to time he would send one of his own patients to Sacks for a consultation. “And then I would get this four-page, five-page, six-page note back with historical features of the person’s life, insights into their neurological disorder, fitting pieces together that I’d never even seen the pieces, let alone put them together,” Devinsky says. The two became good friends during the filming, and Williams talked about Sacks while promoting Awakenings on The Tonight Show: “He’s an amazing man,” Williams said. “He’s about 6 foot 4 inches.

Our partners
Follow us
Contact us
Our contacts

About this site