Oliver Sacks, the neurologist whose 1973 nonfiction novel, Awakenings, was adapted into a 1990 Oscar-nominated film of the same name, has died. He was 82. Oliver Sacks was perhaps best noted for his work with post-encephalitic patients, but most recently, he gained critical acclaim for his last essay, an op-ed piece that was published in the New York Times in February, 2015, where he acknowledged that he was in the late stages of terminal cancer.
“It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can,” Oliver Sacks said. The piece was hailed by many as a statement in which many should learn to live their lives and as a beautifully written piece in general.
Of the terminal diagnosis, Sacks also noted in the op-ed piece, “I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at ‘NewsHour’ every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.”
Oliver Sacks, however, was not just about the exploration of the human brain. Oliver Sacks was a man who taught society much about how we are all interconnected, a fact which NPR’s Scott Simon reflected on in a social media post.
Oliver Sacks has said he knew something was wrong when “(He) saw a sudden explosion of light and color to one side,” while waiting for a movie to start. That “explosion” was the tumor behind his eye that eventually metastasized to his liver.
A terminal cancer diagnosis was not one to stop Oliver Sacks, though. His blog discusses his visits with lemurs, the 40th anniversary celebration of Awakenings(in 2013), and his ongoing writings. In fact, his most recent writing, Sabbath, was published August 14, 2015, in the New York Times. The writing reflects upon Oliver Sacks’ upbringing, his revelation to his father at 18 that he liked boys, and an addiction to amphetamines that he eventually recovered from. Of his mother’s response to his attraction to men, where she screamed that she wished he had never been born, he said, “her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.”
Oliver Sacks, in fact, had recently reversed a 60-year-old decision to not return to Jerusalem — he had been there in his youth, working on a kibbutz — in order to celebrate a cousin’s 100th birthday in June. He was reluctant to go, at first, because he was not sure how his partner, Billy, would have been received. Of the visit, he said, “How profoundly attitudes had changed, even among the Orthodox, was made clear by Robert John when he invited Billy and me to join him and his family at their opening Sabbath meal.”
Oliver Sacks also admitted his gratitude for having completed On the Move, his memoir, and disclosing his sexuality for one of the first times in a relatively open forum. He had completed the memoir without knowledge that his eye tumor from nine years previous had become metastatic, and said, “(He was) glad (he) was able to complete my memoir without knowing this, and that (he) had been able, for the first time in (his) life, to make a full and frank declaration of (his) sexuality, facing the world openly, with no more guilty secrets locked up inside (him).”
Oliver Sacks was a profound, thoughtful man, and the loss that the world of science and humanity has now felt from his death will certainly be equally profound.
[Photo by Chris McGrath / Getty Images]