Oliver Sacks, eminent neurologist and ‘Awakenings’ author, dies at 82

31 Aug 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

A look at the life of neurologist Dr Oliver Sacks.

Oliver Sacks, 82, the acclaimed neurologist who wrote the autobiographical 1973 book “Awakenings,” that was turned into the 1990 film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro, died at his home Sunday in New York City.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.

Oliver Sacks, whose books like “The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat” probed distant ranges of human experience by compassionately portraying people with severe and sometimes bizarre neurological conditions, has died. Sacks, a professor of neurology who taught for decades at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, Columbia University and New York University School of Medicine, was well-known for writing 13 books that helped explain the symptoms of his patients who suffered from conditions centered on the brain. “Awakenings” focused on victims of encephalitis lethargica, an illness that left patients in coma-like states for decades. 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.

In his best-selling 1985 book, he described a man who really did mistake his wife’s face for his hat while visiting Sacks’ office, because his brain had difficulty interpreting what he saw. He moved to America in the early 1960s for an internship at San Francisco’s Mount Zion Hospital, after which he was a resident at UCLA. “In 1961, I declared my intention to become a United States citizen, which may have been a genuine intention, but I never got round to it. 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. I think it may go with a slight feeling that this was only an extended visit,” he told the Guardian in 2005. “I rather like the words ‘resident alien’.

Discover magazine ranked it among the 25 greatest science books of all time in 2006, declaring, “Legions of neuroscientists now probing the mysteries of the human brain cite this book as their greatest inspiration.” Sacks’ 1973 book, “Awakenings,” about hospital patients who’d spent decades in a kind of frozen state until Sacks tried a new treatment, led to a 1990 movie in which Sacks was portrayed by Robin Williams. Sacks wrote in the 1984 book “A Leg to Stand On” about his own experiences recovering from muscle surgery. “I had explored many strange, neuropsychological lands — the furthest Arctics and Tropics of neurological disorder.” The son of two physicians announced in an essay in the Times in February he had only months to live. Still another book, “An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales,” published in 1995, described cases like a painter who lost color vision in a car accident but found new creative power in black-and-white.

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. 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. The New York Times has referred to Dr Sacks as “the poet laureate of medicine,” and in 2002 he was awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize by Rockefeller University, which recognises the scientist as poet.

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. This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself.

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