Oliver Sacks, Explorer of Human Brain, Spirit, Dies at 82

Brilliant neuroscientist unflinchingly confronted his own death
By Polly Davis Doig,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 30, 2015 8:00 AM CDT
Oliver Sacks, Explorer of Human Brain, Spirit, Dies at 82
In this 2007 photo, neurologist Oliver Sacks holds a model of a brain at the Chemistry Auditorium, University College London.   (AP Photo/BBC, Adam Scourfield)

Oliver Sacks, the acclaimed neurologist who scientifically parsed the mysteries of the human brain while simultaneously embracing the intricacies of the human spirit, has died today at the age of 82, reports the New York Times. Sacks had suffered terminal cancer, and unflinchingly and poignantly confronted his own death in a February op-ed in the New York Times. "I cannot pretend I am without fear," he wrote of his diagnosis. "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." A prolific author, Sacks first gained prominence in 1973 for Awakenings, his book about patients at a Bronx hospital who had essentially been locked inside themselves for years; the book was later made into an eponymous movie starring Robin Williams.

The Times notes Sacks' many contradictions: "candid and guarded, gregarious and solitary, clinical and compassionate, scientific and poetic, British and almost American." He studies hallucinations later in life, notes NPR, inspired by his youthful dalliance with LSD. "I'm strongly atheist by disposition, but nonetheless when this happened, I couldn't help thinking, 'That must be what the hand of God is like,'" he told Terri Gross in 2012. Even as cancer consumed him, Sacks remained active, with his longtime assistant noting earlier this month that "he is still writing with great clarity. We are pretty sure he will go with fountain pen in hand." Meditating again on the end of his life, he wrote two weeks ago in the Times: "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." Rest, Dr. Sacks; his full obituary is here. (More neurologist stories.)

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