Where Science Meets Poetry: Remembering Oliver Sacks

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. 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. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

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.” – Dr. Oliver Sacks


Dr. Oliver Sacks died of cancer on August 30. He was 82.

Dr. Sacks was a neurologist and writer whose most famous book, Awakenings, was turned into a feature film in 1990 by Penny Marshall, starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro. It was a fictionalized version of the events described as case studies in Dr. Sacks’ 1973 book of the same name. In 1969 Doctor Sacks made a breakthrough in treating a group of encephalitis patients in New York who had been in catatonic states for many decades. Using L-Dopa, a drug that was designed to treat Parkinson’s disease, he was able to “wake up” many of the patients for a short time over a few weeks in 1969. Although the experiment was ultimately unsuccessful, Dr. Sacks showed a remarkable amount of empathy and respect in writing up these case studies and treating his patients as people first, rather than as merely test subjects. Even though the movie takes liberties with history, Oliver Sacks spent time on the set to ensure that the clinical elements of his experience were portrayed accurately.

Oliver Sacks and Robin Williams on the set of "Awakenings"

Oliver Sacks and Robin Williams on the set of “Awakenings”

In his books and case studies, Dr. Sacks walked a fine line between scientist and philosopher, and often resembled a 19th century “adventurer” who was on the frontiers of brain research, treating the mysteries of the human mind with the same sense of discovery and wonder as the world’s great geographic explorers did.

His work was not without controversy, though. Many researchers felt that his work wasn’t clinical enough, and that he emphasized the subjective approach over the scientific method. Some former patients felt that their stories were exploited for his own benefit. And yet others believed that his approach to understanding and explaining the complex qualities of the human mind could only fully be expressed by taking the human qualities of the patient into account.


Even though neurology was his speciality, Dr. Sacks’ innate curiosity about the world and his ability to make complex concepts understandable also made him popular with general interest readers. I came to know of him first through the Awakenings movie; after that I tried to read everything he put out, starting with The man who mistook his wife for a hat, a book of case studies including the title story about a man with severe perception issues who cannot seem to process what he sees in front of him, whether it is the flower in the doctor’s lapel, or even the difference between his wife’s head and a coat-tree with a hat on it. Sacks sees that the man’s life is not really impaired by this problem, as he has compensated in other ways, including the ability to sing songs to remind him of what’s around him. Sacks does not even venture a diagnosis, although he suspects it may be a tumour or the deterioration of the visual cortex. He ends up prescribing more music for the man to listen to, to strengthen his own inner music which seems to be the engine that keeps him going. The patient goes on to live a full and happy life. We don’t learn much about the wife’s head, though.


If you are interested in learning more about Dr. Sacks’ life, I’d start with Uncle Tungsten in which he talks about his childhood growing up in a Jewish household in England, his early fascination with chemistry and how he developed his natural curiosity about the world.


80050[1]A Leg to Stand On is part micro-memoir about his recovery from a surgery after a bad fall hiking in a remote area of Norway, and part case-study as he examines his own reactions, both physical and psychological, to this injury.

51fWhqBeboL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_[1] His most recent memoir, published earlier this year, is On the Move, which picks up where Uncle Tungsten left off and describes the bulk of his life, his struggles with his own sexuality as a gay man coming of age in 1950s England, and trying to keep the balance between telling his patients’ stories at the risk of seeming to exploit their conditions for his own benefit and research.

The library has several of his books, and I encourage you to seek them out and find the ones that interest you, whether it is how music affects the brain in Musicophilia, or a bit of travel writing in Oaxaca Journal where he tracks down some elusive ferns (I’m not joking).

Toward the end of his life, Dr. Sacks didn’t shy away from his own aging and mortality. I’ll link to three pieces, all published in the New York Times. He wrote the first one in 2013 to mark his 80th birthday, the second was published this past February, when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, and the third piece appeared just a few weeks ago and concludes with this eloquent reflection on his life’s work:

“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. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”



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