’Awakenings’ author, neurologist Oliver Sacks dies at 82

NEW YORK — There was the blind man who had the disastrous experience of regaining his sight. The surgeon who developed a sudden passion for music after being struck by lightning. And most famously, the man who mistook his wife for a hat.

Those stories and many more, taking the reader to the distant ranges of human experience, came from the pen of Dr. Oliver Sacks.

Sacks, 82, died Sunday at his home in New York City, his assistant, Kate Edgar, said. In February, he had announced that he was terminally ill with a rare eye cancer that had spread to his liver.

As a practicing neurologist, Sacks looked at some of his patients with a writer’s eye and found publishing gold.

In his best-selling 1985 book, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” 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. Another story in the book featured twins with autism who had trouble with ordinary math but who could perform other amazing calculations.

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. It was nominated for three Academy Awards.

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, and a 50-year-old man who suddenly regained sight after nearly a lifetime of blindness. The experience was a disaster; the man’s brain could not make sense of the visual world. It perceived the human face as a shifting mass of meaningless colors and textures.

After a full and rich life as a blind person, he became “a very disabled and miserable partially sighted man,” Sacks recalled later. “When he went blind again, he was rather glad of it.”

Despite the drama and unusual stories, his books were not literary freak shows.

“Oliver Sacks humanizes illness … he writes of body and mind, and from every one of his case studies there radiates a feeling of respect for the patient and for the illness,” Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, said in 2001. “What others consider unmitigated tragedy or dysfunction, Sacks sees, and makes us see, as a human being coping with dignity with a biological problem.”

When Sacks received the prestigious Lewis Thomas Prize for science writing in 2002, the citation declared, “Sacks presses us to follow him into uncharted regions of human experience — and compels us to realize, once there, that we are confronting only ourselves.”

In a 1998 interview with The Associated Press, Sacks said he tries to make “visits to other people, to other interiors, seeing the world through their eyes.”

His 2007 book, “Musicophilia,” examines the relationship between music and the brain, including its healing effect on people with such conditions as Tourette’s syndrome, Parkinson’s, autism and Alzheimer’s.

“Even with advanced dementia, when powers of memory and language are lost, people will respond to music,” he told The Associated Press in 2008.

Oliver Wolf Sacks was born in 1933 in London, son of husband-and-wife physicians. Both were skilled at recounting medical stories, and Sack’s own writing impulse “seems to have come directly from them,” he said in his 2015 memoir, “On the Move.”

In childhood he was drawn to chemistry (his 2001 memoir is titled “Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood”) and biology. Around age 11, fascinated by how ferns slowly unfurl, he set up a camera to take pictures every hour or so of a fern and then assembled a flip book to compress the process into a few seconds.

“I became a doctor a little belatedly and a little reluctantly,” he told one interviewer. “In a sense, I was a naturalist first and I only came to individuals relatively late.”

After earning a medical degree at Oxford, Sacks moved to the United States in 1960 and completed a medical internship in San Francisco and a neurology residency at the University of California, Los Angeles. He moved to New York in 1965 and began decades of neurology practice. At a Bronx hospital he met the profoundly disabled patients he described in “Awakenings.”

Among his other books were “The Island of the Colorblind” (1997) about a society where congenital colorblindness was common, “Seeing Voices” (1989) about the world of deaf culture, and “Hallucinations” (2012), in which Sacks discussed his own hallucinations as well as those of some patients.

Even apart from his books, he wrote prolifically. He began keeping journals at age 14, and in his 2015 memoir he said he’d filled more than a thousand at last count. He kept a notebook nearby when he went to bed or swam, never knowing when thoughts would strike. They often arrived in complete sentences or paragraphs.

As his hearing worsened, he even devoted a notebook to instances in which he misheard something, like “cuttlefish” for “publicist.”

Yet, he rarely looked at his journals after filling them. “The act of writing is itself enough … ideas emerge and are shaped, in the act of writing,” he said in his 2015 book.

Writing gave him “a joy, unlike any other,” he said. “It takes me to another place. … In those rare, heavenly states of mind, I may write nonstop until I can no longer see the paper. Only then do I realize that evening has come and that I have been writing all day.”

In the AP interview, Sacks was asked what he’d learned from peering into lives much different from the norm.

“People will make a life in their own terms, whether they are deaf or colorblind or autistic or whatever,” he replied. “And their world will be quite as rich and interesting and full as our world.”

Sacks reflected on his own life this year when he wrote in the New York Times that he was terminally ill. “I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions,” he wrote.

In the time he had remaining, he said, he would no longer pay attention to matters like politics and global warming because they “are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people. … I feel the future is in good hands.”

“I cannot pretend I am without fear,” he wrote. “But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. … Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

Talk to us

More in Local News

Eve Barrows (left) and the students duck and cover under desks during an Earthquake Drill at Port Susan Middle School on Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021 in Stanwood, Washington.  (Andy Bronson / The Herald)
‘Drop, cover, hold on!’ Stanwood kids hear new alarms in quake drill

The Great ShakeOut offered a dress rehearsal Thursday for a new system that aims to warn before the tremors start.

This crash in Monroe happened early Friday morning after police discontinued a high-speed chase. Both occupants were taken to a hospital. (Monroe Police Department) 20211022
2 seriously injured in Monroe crash; DUI suspected

The driver hit a center lane divider and rolled his car. Police are investigating him for vehicular assault.

Everett Farmer’s Market canceled Sunday due to weather

Organizers cited a high-wind advisory. It is to reopen Oct. 31 for the final market of the season.

Police: ‘Prolific’ Marysville thief stole from dozens of gym lockers

The suspect, 23, was arrested this week for investigation of more than 55 felonies.

Alejandro Meza watches a video of the altercation he had with Gene Peterson on Community Transit bus during opening statements of his trial on Wednesday, Oct. 20, 2021 in Everett, Wa. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)
Murder trial opens for man who shot stranger on Everett bus

Alejandro Meza got into a fight with a passenger over drug use, he claimed. His attorneys say he acted in self-defense.

Police are searching for a female suspect following a burglary at the Masjid Umar Al-Farooq Mosque in Mountlake Terrace. (City of Mountlake Terrace)
Police arrest suspect in Mountlake Terrace mosque burglary

Another person remained at large, after burglars took prayer rugs and Qurans then threw them in a dumpster.

Arlington schools briefly on lockout; students, staff safe

A Mukilteo resident reportedly intended to die by suicide in a school parking lot. They were found and referred to care.

Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste, center, greets a new trooper during a graduation ceremony, as Gov. Jay Inslee looks on in the Rotunda at the Capitol Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018, in Olympia, Wash. The class of 31 troopers completed more than 1,000 hours of training and will now work for the WSP across the state. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)
Rather than get vaccine, nearly 2,000 state workers lose jobs

Ten troopers north of Seattle, 54 Monroe prison workers and hundreds more across the state refused the governor’s mandate.

Most Read