‘Awak­en­ings’ au­thor, neu­rol­o­gist Oliver Sacks dies

The China Post - - INTERNATIONAL - BY MAL­COLM RIT­TER

Dr. Oliver Sacks, whose books like “The Man Who Mis­took His Wife For a Hat” probed dis­tant ranges of hu­man ex­pe­ri­ence by com­pas­sion­ately por­tray­ing peo­ple with se­vere and some­times bizarre neu­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tions, has died. He was 82.

Sacks died Sun­day at his home in New York City, his as­sis­tant, Kate Edgar, said.

Sacks had an­nounced in Fe­bru­ary 2015 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, 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 autis­tic twins 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.

It also told of 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 Prizewin­ning 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,” looked at the re­la­tion­ship be­tween mu­sic and the brain, in­clud­ing its heal­ing ef­fect on peo­ple suf­fer­ing from such dis­eases 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 AP in 2008.

Oliver Wolf Sacks was born in 1933 in Lon­don, son of hus­ban­dand-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.”

‘I have been a sen­tient be­ing ... on this beau­ti­ful planet, and that has been an enor­mous

priv­i­lege’

In child­hood he was drawn to chem­istry (his 2001 memoir is called, “Un­cle Tung­sten: Mem­o­ries of a Chem­i­cal Boy­hood”) and biol- ogy. 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 hal­luci- na­tions as well as those of some pa­tients.

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 in 2015 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. 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.”

AFP

In this June 3, 2009 file photo, neu­rol­o­gist Dr. Oliver Sacks speaks at Columbia Univer­sity in New York City.

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