Oliver Sacks: Rebel with a cause

Oliver Sacks, who died on Sunday, broke the rules to bring medical dilemmas to the masses


"And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away, I find my thoughts not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life - achieving a sense of peace within oneself."

Such were the parting words of Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and acclaimed author, who wrote his final newspaper article in August on rediscovering the "peace of Sabbath" that had punctuated his childhood upbringing.

He reflected: "When one can feel that one's work is done and one may, in good conscience, rest."

He died a week later at the age of 82, at his home in Greenwich Village, New York, surrounded by his close friends and family, including his partner of six years, the writer Bill Hayes.

It was in February this year that he publicly revealed his terminal cancer in the New York Times. He said "cancer occupies a third of my liver" - caused by a rare tumour of the eye that he had received treatment for nine years prior.

"I feel grateful I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face-to-face with dying," he wrote.

"It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can."

No one can accuse Dr Sacks of failing to achieve a rich, deep and productive life. Born on July 9, 1933, in London, he was the youngest of four sons of Samuel and Muriel Sacks, both physicians. He described his early years in Cricklewood as being centred on Shabbat, when the family would congregate at synagogue, before returning home for gefilte fish and poached salmon.

But his early piety ended with his barmitzvah portion, which he chanted in 1946. From then, he grew, in his words "gradually more indifferent to the beliefs of my parents" - until a permanent "rupture" at the age of 18, when his mother discovered he was gay and called him "an abomination".

"The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion's capacity for bigotry and cruelty," he recalled.

After completing his medical degree at Oxford in 1958, he left for America and the Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco and, later, the University of California in Los Angeles.

He later worked at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx, at the New York University School of Medicine and at the Columbia University Medical Centre, gaining honorary degrees - and a CBE in 2008 - along the way.

He first came to public attention in 1973 when he wrote Awakenings - a book about his work with catatonic patients left speechless and motionless after suffering from encephalitis. After giving them the drug, L-Dopa, one awoke from and had to come to terms with the world. The book was made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.

The neurologist's cousin Jonathan Lynn - the director of the film My Cousin Vinny and co-writer of the sitcom Yes, Minister - said of Awakenings: "It was a very brave book to write. It was the first time that a doctor had broached the subject of holistic medicine. Oliver's view was that you had to look at patients as a whole. He knew that people are not like cars: you can't just change their fuel pump.

"He saw that illness changes you - sometimes for the worse, in many cases for the better. But you couldn't marginalise or disregard someone because they were not 'normal'. He helped people come to terms with their problems and in some ways, feel like their lives were enhanced because of them."

Mr Lynn said that Awakenings was about a attempted medical breakthrough that ultimately failed, and that Dr Sacks had "bravely and honestly" wrote about that failure.

He said the doctor had shown "astonishing originality and fortitude in continuing when everything he did in Awakenings was derided at the time, although it is now seen to have been prescient".

Dr Sacks's work exploring the brain led to the publication of other well-received books, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. He is often credited with highlighting conditions like Tourette's and Asperger's Syndrome, and de-stigmatising them.

At times, the doctor displayed a rebellious streak.

Mr Lynn recalled: "He didn't have time for rules he didn't believe in.

"He once had a patient whose dying wish was to ride on a motorcycle through the Topanga Canyon. So Oliver picked him up and took him on his motorcycle. It made the patient happy, but the hospital almost fired him."

Mr Lynn said his cousin loved good company but was also very private and very guarded.

"Then, at the end of his life, he finally decided to really be honest. He wrote his new autobiography, On the Move, in which he finally came out as having been gay his whole life. He owned up to all kinds of things. Nobody wants to die, but I think he died in peace with himself."

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