Tribute: Oliver Sacks

Posted on August 30, 2015 at 9:17 am

We mourn the passing of neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks, who illuminated the workings of the brain and set an example of grace and compassion that extended to the way he shared his thoughts about his terminal diagnosis.

I first learned of his work when I read his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales, stories about his patients. Those extreme examples of impairment of perception, cognition, and functioning were utterly absorbing. Sacks’ dedication and kindness, his deep connection to the humanity of his patients, the lyricism of his descriptions, are profound and moving.

His work inspired art. The best known is Awakenings, directed by Penny Marshall, with Robin Williams playing a character based on Sacks and Robert De Niro playing one of his “locked-in” post-encephalitic patients. They were thought to be incurably impaired, almost completely, until Sacks proposed a new treatment. They were brought back to life, but, tragically, only briefly.

Nobel Prize-winner Harold Pinter adapted another of Sacks’ stories into a play, “A Kind of Alaska.”

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was adapted into an opera.

Another of my favorite books is An Anthropologist On Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. It did more than provide insights into the way people with autism perceive the world; it allowed neurotypicals to see the world through the mind of Temple Grandin, which gave her opportunities to tell her own story in books and in an award-winning film where she was played by Claire Danes.

I was privileged to see Dr. Sacks speak twice. He was candid about his own impairments, including prosopagnosia (the inability to recognize faces). His book, A Leg to Stand On describes his own experience as a patient, following a severe leg injury that affected his perception of his own body. His depth of understanding encompassed all ways of perceiving to demonstrate that what we think of as “normal” is just one small part of the range of human experience. His legacy should inspire everyone to think more about how the perceptions of those around us affect the way they see the world and to do more to meet them where they are and to build on what we share.

May his memory be a blessing.

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