Oliver Sacks, renowned neurologist and acclaimed author, wrote about his patients with deep empathy and in graceful prose. And he continued to do so, even when he himself became a terminal patient.
Sacks achieved rare fame for a scientist. He wrote about the oddities of the human mind, and his books became wildly popular. In his words, said Soviet author AR Luria, “science became poetry.” In February, he told the world about his terminal cancer, and the world wept for him. On Sunday (Aug. 30), he died, and the world is left poorer for his loss.
Sacks pursued his work and much else with—as he once described it—a “vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions.” His love for science began as a kid with a chemistry set, which he used to fill the house with smoke. He took to drugs, first as an experiment, and then as an addict. Not long after he began working out, he set a California state record in weight-lifting.
His work was turned into movies and adapted for theaters. The 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat premiered as an opera in 1986 in London. The 1990 film Awakenings—based on the book with the same title—starred Robin Williams, who portrayed Sacks.
But for all his public acclaim, in his personal life he kept things at a certain distance. The experience of being bullied at boarding school caused him to have trouble forming lasting relationships. When he finally found love—in writer Bill Hayes—he was in his 77th year.
When all that was put together, which he did in the last six months, he was satisfied: “I have loved and been loved…I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.”