Neurologist Oliver Sacks dies aged 82

There was the blind man who had the disastrous experience of regaining his sight.

杭州桑拿

The surgeon who developed a sudden passion for music after being struck by lightning. And most famously, the man who mistook his wife for a hat.

Those stories and many more, taking the reader to the distant ranges of human experience, came from the pen of Dr Oliver Sacks.

Sacks, 82, died on Sunday at his home in New York City.

In February, he had announced that he was terminally ill with a rare eye cancer that had spread to his liver.

As a practising neurologist, Sacks looked at some of his patients with a writer’s eye and found publishing gold.

In his best-selling 1985 book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, 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 twins with autism who had trouble with ordinary maths 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.

Despite the drama and unusual stories, his books were not literary freak shows.

“Oliver Sacks humanises 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 Prize-winning chemist, said in 2001.

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.”

Sacks was born in 1933 in London, son of husband-and-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.

In childhood he was drawn to chemistry and biology.

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.

Even apart from his books, he wrote prolifically. He began keeping journals at age 14, and in his 2015 memoir he said he’d filled more than a thousand at last count.

He kept a notebook nearby when he went to bed or swam, never knowing when thoughts would strike. They often arrived in complete sentences or paragraphs.

As his hearing worsened, he even devoted a notebook to instances in which he misheard something, like “cuttlefish” for “publicist.”

Sacks reflected on his own life this year 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.”

Sacks wrote: “I have loved and been loved (but) 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.”