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.
~ Oliver Sacks, February 2015
When my son came home from college after declaring a psychology major, one of the textbooks he brought with him was Oliver Sacks’ The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. I thought it a strange title, maybe meant to be attention grabbing, and thought nothing more of it. But then, during his break, my son kept bringing it to me, and telling me, “Mom, you have to read this. It’s so fascinating.” So I did. And it was.
In The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and other books and essays, Dr. Sacks didn’t just lay out neurological issues in a clinical manner, he used his patients’ disorders as a jumping off point for eloquent ruminations on the human condition. This treatment of the disorders as being part of a distinct and engaging human being rather than simply an inert diagnosis not only helped to demystify perplexing conditions such as Tourette’s Syndrome or Asperger’s, but made Dr. Sacks one of the most popular and sought out scientists of our time.
Born on July 9, 1933 in London, England, his father was a physician and his mother was one of the first female surgeons in the UK. He received his medical degrees from Oxford by 1960 then moved to New York in 1965 to become professor of Neurology first at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, then the New York University School of Medicine, and then Columbia University Medical Center.
Author of 14 books and a regular contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books, he also wrote numerous scientific papers, as well as essays that appeared in more general publications such as The New York Times. His works have been translated into over 25 languages, and one, Awakenings, was made into a major motion picture starring Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro.
He held numerous honorary doctorates, and Oxford University awarded him an honorary Doctor of Civil Law degree in 2005. In 2003, he was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). But he was a severely shy man (he called it a disease), who never married and did not enter into a serious relationship until 2008, when he met writer and New York Times contributor Bill Hayes. He also suffered from prosopagnosia, more commonly referred to as “face blindness.”
Dr. Sacks had been diagnosed with a uveal melanoma in his right eye in 2006, and the resulting treatment caused him to lose his stereoscopic vision. In January 2015, it was learned that that cancer had spread to his liver and brain, and after a few months of living “in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can,” he succumbed to the disease on August 30. He was 82.
~ Sharon Browning