“In examining disease, we gain wisdom about anatomy and physiology and biology. In examining the person with disease, we gain wisdom about life.”
Oliver Sacks- The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat
Neurologist and wordsmith Oliver Sacks was driven by a boundless curiosity. He was perpetually enraptured by the synaptic symphony of the human mind—it was his muse. In neuroscience, Sacks found beauty, heartache and intrigue, he found art—he clinically explored the human condition through the empathetic lens of a poet. He wrote about the short-circuits and misfirings of the mind, intrusive maladies that turn worlds upside-down, and he did so in a way that resonated beyond the medical community. He adored the writing of the Soviet Neuropsychologist Alexander Luria and adopted a similar style, opting for a more humanistic approach grounded within a compelling narrative.
Above all else, he was a storyteller. Science led the reader through the door, and the story kept him in the room. And while his rather literary approach to case studies was not universally lauded within the medical community (though, really, what is?) it’s the reason why his work was able to transcend the typical borders between medical writing and literature. Dr.Sacks published 13 books throughout his career. He wrote about entire colorblind societies, people who see music, and a man who mistook his wife for a hat. Through compelling and lyrical prose, he introduced readers to musician Clive Wearing, a man whose memory resets every 30 seconds yet is still able to play the piano beautifully and feel love for his wife through her unquantifiable essence. He explored the often painful solidarity of Autism through his time with Temple Grandin, humanizing a disorder that was—and to some degree remains—vastly misunderstood. He examined illness not as its own entity, but as an entity that penetrated behavior and changed lives. There’s a vivid, large, pulsating heart behind every word he put on the page. A bouquet of misfiring neurons may have been the agent from which a story was mined, but it was never what the story was about. The stories were about people.
In January of this year Oliver Sacks was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. He handled impending death in the same way he handled life—with grace, wit and lyricism. After receiving the news, Sacks wrote an op-ed for The New York Times in which he said,
“I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. 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.”
The legacy of Oliver Sacks will be a multifaceted one. He will undoubtedly be remembered as the empathetic storyteller he was, the physician-poet who brought an unfettered vibrance to clinical writing—but there’s more to learn from him than that. He was an adventurer. While completing his residency, Sacks was a bodybuilder at Muscle Beach and at one point he owned the California record for squatting 600lbs. He experimented with sex and hallucinogenic drugs, he probed his consciousness—he traveled the world on a motorcycle. He indulged his curiosity at every turn. Sacks was a man drawn to the dynamic. Up to the very last day of his life he was exploring, searching for answers and truth, poking and prodding at the edges and the insides—living an unapologetically inquisitive life.
And in the end, it seems he was satisfied.
(6/7/33 – 8/30/15)
by Jesse Mechanic
Jesse Mechanic is the Editor-in-chief of The Overgrown.