Tuesday, September 1, 2015

In honor of Oliver Sacks

“When people die, they cannot be replaced.” — Oliver Sacks

SUNDAY, August 30, the brilliant, prolific Oliver Sacks died. I'm sad he's left us. He was right; people cannot be replaced. He certainly can't. He was a force of nature, a polymath, and as he described himself, immoderate in his passions. 

Fortunately, he shared many of those passions with us. Of the 13 books he's written, however, I've only read two, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Seeing Voices. I believe I'll read the rest. 


In honor of his life and death, I'm sharing two New York Times articles that ran the day he died. The one by Michiko Kakutani is especially beautifully written as befits her subject. 











Oliver Sacks, Neurologist Who Wrote About the Brain’s Quirks, Dies at 82


By Gregpry Cowles

August. 30, 2015

Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and acclaimed author who explored some of the brain’s strangest pathways in best-selling case histories like “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” using his patients’ disorders as starting points for eloquent meditations on consciousness and the human condition, died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 82.


The cause was cancer, said Kate Edgar, his longtime personal assistant. Dr. Sacks announced in February, in an Op-Ed essay in The New York Times, that an earlier melanoma in his eye had spread to his liver and that he was in the late stages of terminal cancer.


As a medical doctor and a writer, Dr. Sacks achieved a level of popular renown rare among scientists. More than a million copies of his books are in print in the United States, his work was adapted for film and stage, and he received about 10,000 letters a year. (“I invariably reply to people under 10, over 90 or in prison,” he once said.)





Dr. Sacks variously described his books and essays as case histories, pathographies, clinical tales or “neurological novels.” His subjects included Madeleine J., a blind woman who perceived her hands only as useless “lumps of dough”; Jimmie G., a submarine radio operator whose amnesia stranded him for more than three decades in 1945; and Dr. P. — the man who mistook his wife for a hat — whose brain lost the ability to decipher what his eyes were seeing.


Describing his patients’ struggles and sometimes uncanny gifts, Dr. Sacks helped introduce syndromes like Tourette’s or Asperger’s to a general audience. But he illuminated their characters as much as their conditions; he humanized and demystified them.


In his emphasis on case histories, Dr. Sacks modeled himself after a questing breed of 19th-century physicians, who well understood how little they and their peers knew about the workings of the human animal and who saw medical science as a vast, largely uncharted wilderness to be tamed.


“I had always liked to see myself as a naturalist or explorer,” Dr. Sacks wrote in “A Leg to Stand On” (1984), about his own experiences recovering from muscle surgery. “I had explored many strange, neuropsychological lands — the furthest Arctics and Tropics of neurological disorder.”


His intellectual curiosity took him even further. On his website, Dr. Sacks maintained a partial list of topics he had written about. It included aging, amnesia, color, deafness, dreams, ferns, Freud, hallucinations, neural Darwinism, phantom limbs, photography, pre-Columbian history, swimming and twins.


“I am very tenacious, for better or worse,” he wrote in “A Leg to Stand On.” “If my attention is engaged, I cannot disengage it. This may be a great strength, or weakness. It makes me an investigator. It makes me an obsessional.”


To read the complete article, click here.



Oliver Sacks, Casting Light on the Interconnectedness of Life

By Michiko Kakutani

August 30, 2015

It’s no coincidence that so many of the qualities that made Oliver Sacks such a brilliant writer are the same qualities that made him an ideal doctor: keen powers of observation and a devotion to detail, deep reservoirs of sympathy, and an intuitive understanding of the fathomless mysteries of the human brain and the intricate connections between the body and the mind.


Dr. Sacks, who died on Sunday at 82, 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.


In his writings, as he once said of his mentor, the great Soviet neuropsychologist and author A. R. Luria, “science became poetry.”


In books like “Awakenings,” “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” and “An Anthropologist on Mars,” Dr. Sacks — a longtime practicing doctor and a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine — gave us case studies of patients whose stories were so odd, so anomalous, so resonant that they read like tales by Borges or Calvino. 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. A blind poet who suffers from — or is gifted with — extraordinarily complex hallucinations: a milkman in an azure cart with a golden horse; small flocks of birds wearing shoes that metamorphose into men and women in medieval clothes.


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.


Click here to read the article in its entirety.

1 comment:

  1. I only read "The man who mistook his wife for a hat". Probably after hearing about it on Morning Edition. Fascinating h compelling stories & terrific writing made the book quite memorable. I hope his work helps lead to some solutions.

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