Oliver Sacks: When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.
– by Liz Campese / Staff Writer
It’s always hard when you realize that someone you respected and admired has passed away, and that is exactly what happened to me yesterday. I read that Oliver Sacks died at his Greenwich Village home on Sunday morning (August 30th) at the age of 82. The cause of death was cancer.
I had the pleasure of meeting the famed British author and neurologist a few years back when he gave a talk about Hallucinations, one of his last works, at The Cooper Union’s Great Hall. I was there to learn about his ideas, and to ask as many questions as possible for one my very first writing assignments at Brain World Magazine.
“…when the brain is released from the constraints of reality, it can generate any sound, image, or smell in its repertoire, sometimes in complex and “impossible” combinations”.” ― Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks often used himself as a subject and never being one to shy away from sharing his experiences with hallucinations, he has extensively written and lectured about them, including on that fateful day I saw him speak. “Sacks’ own forays into the various worlds of perception were predominantly the results of his hallucinatory launch pad, or as Hockenberry put it, ‘controlled substances'”.
“Waking consciousness is dreaming – but dreaming constrained by external reality” ― Oliver Sacks
His insight was always delivered with a certain flair for entertainment. He knew his audiences, though his audiences didn’t know that much about him. And I think that he preferred it that way. He often stated how his shyness was a major obstacle for him when it came to his personal life.
In his last book, On the Road, he revealed himself to the world shortly before leaving it for good.
As for his work, that’s a completely different story. Oliver Sacks wrote a number of bestselling books, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Awakenings (which was made into a movie with Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro), Musicophilia, and of course, my favorite, Hallucinations.
Writing for the New York Times, Gregory Cowles states:
“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.”
A unique blend of academic intellectualism, adventurer’s courage, and athletic build characterized the late scientist and made him an international sensation. Whether Sacks was writing books, giving lectures or indulging in his love of swimming, the man attracted attention like a flower attracts hummingbirds. We couldn’t get enough of him, his ideas, and the amusing way he delivered them.
I can honestly say that it was one of the most interesting and illuminating talks I’ve ever attended, and it’s a shame that I will never be able to attend another.
Thank you, Oliver Sacks, for all of your amazing contributions to neuroscience, medicine, and literature – you will be sorely missed.
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