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Farewell: Oliver Sacks Changed Our Understanding of the Brain


Oliver Sacks, the eminent neurologist and acclaimed author, died Aug. 30, 2015 at his home in Manhattan, New York.

Sacks was born in London, England, July 9, 1933, the youngest child of Jewish parents, both physicians. He spent his professional life in the United States.

He is the author of more than a dozen books, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, An Anthropologist on Mars and Musicophilia.

His second book, Awakenings, described the effects of L-Dopa in a group of patients who had lived in a sort of suspended animation since the epidemic of the "sleeping sickness," encephalitis lethargica, swept the world at the end of the First World War. It was eventually adapted into a successful feature film, starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.

In Awakenings, Sacks wrote: "There is nothing alive which is not individual: our health is ours; our diseases are ours; our reactions are ours – no less than our minds or our faces."

Forty years later, facing his own terminal cancer diagnosis:

When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death. (My Own Life, New York Times, Feb. 19, 2015).

He added, "I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude."

Significantly, Sacks paid tribute to his beloved aunt Lennie for her steadfast support. In his poignant autobiography On the Move, published this spring, he described how she shaped his life.

Lennie, born Helena Penina Landau in 1892, was one of his mother's six sisters. She was the founder of London's Jewish Fresh Air School for Delicate Children. When his mother rejected him for being gay, she accepted him unconditionally.

She was also the first person in his life to encourage his foray into writing, which became a pillar of his identity and his greatest source of strength. After he left England for Canada, their relationship blossomed through their frequent correspondence: "Len's belief in me had been important since my earliest years, since my parents, I thought, did not believe in me, and I had only a fragile belief in myself."

He was grateful to his Uncle Dave, a geologist, who invited him to his bulb-and-vacuum factory, and introduced him to the marvellous properties of metals. Just 10 years old, Sacks then set up his own chemistry lab, inspiring his lifelong romance with the physical sciences.

And now, at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence – an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence – I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity. (My Periodic Table, New York Times, July 24, 2015).

Although not a religious man, Sacks found solace in the Jewish rituals that were part of his upbringing. He loved when his mother lit the Sabbath candles on Friday nights and the family gathered for the evening meal. And his father lifted his silver wine cup and chanted the blessings and the Kiddush.

And 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. 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. (Sabbath, New York Times, Aug. 14, 2015).