Oliver Sacks, famed neurologist and acclaimed author, passed away on Sunday at his home in New York at the age of 82. In February, Dr. Sacks published an op-ed revealing that he was in the late stages of terminal cancer. His long-time personal assistant, Kate Edgar, confirmed that cancer was the cause of death.
Dr. Sacks has a level of popularity and name recognition almost unheard of for a neurologist. He had an amazing gift for explaining complex medical concepts in terms that are easy to understand, and wrote countless books, essays, and articles that were both educational and entertaining. In works like Awakenings or The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Dr. Sacks eloquently explained the struggles faced by the patients as a result of their disorders. He wrote about his patients in a way that humanized them and helped separate the person from the disorder. This type of empathy separates him from many physicians; his compassion helped him to find unexplored avenues for treatment. He once said that he loved to "discover potential in people who aren’t thought to have any", and that when it came to his patience he was "concerned with the freedom or potential of the human spirit against a physiological fate".
Edgar published a post on Dr. Sacks’ website confirming his death and extending the “love and sympathies” of his staff to his partner, Billy Hayes, who survives him. Edgar writes that Dr. Sacks “spent his final days doing what he loved – playing the piano, writing to friends, swimming, enjoying smoked salmon, and completing several articles”. One such article was the essay “Sabbath”, in which he reflected on his memories of the Sabbath and “what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life”. Two additional articles are scheduled to be published this week, in the New York Review of Books and in the New Yorker.
Dr. Sacks concluded his February 2015 op-ed by reflecting on his life, writing:
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. 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.
Dr. Sacks was an intelligent, articulate voice in the scientific community and will be sorely missed.