Neurologist Oliver Sacks, scientific consumer of life, dies at 82

Renowned writer and thinker, born to London Jewish family, succumbs to battle with cancer after life of exploring brain’s mysteries and scientific thrill-seeking

Oliver Sacks giving a TED talk in 2009. (CC BY Bill Holsinger-Robinson, Flickr)
Oliver Sacks giving a TED talk in 2009. (CC BY Bill Holsinger-Robinson, Flickr)

A preeminent consumer of life, Oliver Sacks, 82, died Sunday from stage IV ocular melanoma.

His personal assistant for many years, Kate Edgar, told The New York Times that he died of cancer.

In a distinctly Sacks fashion, he wrote his own obit in a moving February 2015 New York Times oped in which he discusses life and the progression toward death from the cancer that eventually consumed him.

Sacks made a name for himself as a neurologist, albeit one who was able to bring the mysteries of the brain to life through narrative storytelling.

The prolific author wrote innumerable publications and books, including 1973’s autobiographical “Awakenings,” which was turned into a feature film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, 1985’s “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” and his 2015 memoir, “On the Move.”

A scientific thrill-seeker, the neurologist incessantly experimented on himself — through psychedelic drugs, body building, and miles and miles of highway motorcycling. He still swam a mile a day at 81.

“I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions,” he wrote in his New York Times oped.

Sacks was born in 1933 in North London to father Samuel, a physician, and mother Muriel Elsie Landau, a pioneering female surgeon. He had three siblings and his extended family includes founding Israeli statesman Abba Eban, current Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog, and Israeli-American mathematician, Nobel laureate Robert Aumann.

Sacks’s mother died in the Jewish state, and in a well-shared video he says, “I have a bit of a feeling against Israel.”

Painfully shy, Sacks was unlucky in love as a young man when a fellow Queen’s College student rejected his advances. As recounted in a RadioLab podcast, Sacks’s mother, learning of his homosexuality, reacted with horror and Sacks lived a celibate life for decades.

Sacks did find love, however, and at age 77 began a life-long romantic relationship with writer Bill Hayes, which, as Sunday’s New York Times obituary notes, “meant relinquishing ‘the habits of a lifetime’s solitude,’ like decades of meals that consisted mostly of cereal or sardines, eaten ‘out of the tin, standing up, in 30 seconds.'”

His February New York Times oped addressed the scientist’s fear of dying. A high-profile atheist, he wrote that he felt a profound sense of gratitude for his life, loving and being loved.

“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,” wrote Sacks.

His last piece for the newspaper, published August 14, however was about finding solace in Shabbat, the Jewish day of rest.

“Now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, 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,” he wrote. “I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

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