Oliver Sacks, doctor of ‘Awakenings’ and poet laureate of medicine, dies at 82

31 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A look at the life of neurologist Dr Oliver Sacks.

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. 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. 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.

But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learnt that I have multiple metastases in the liver.” Sacks was the author of several books about unusual medical conditions, including ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat’ and ‘The Island of the Colourblind’. ‘Awakenings’ was based on his work with patients treated with a drug that woke them up after years in a catatonic state. 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.

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. 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. 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.

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