Oliver Sacks

The famous and well-known neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks recently passed away of terminal cancer. I only have the pleasure of meeting Dr. Sacks on one occasion, at least, that is, in person.  I found them to be congenial, humble, and soft-spoken.  

Like most people, I better knew Sacks through his writing.  And Dr. Sacks’s writings are not quiet. He trumpeted neurology to the world. In a friendly and dignified voice, he proclaimed neurology’s worth to anyone with a brain and curiosity about how it worked.

One sensed in his writing a deep interest in people, both scientifically and humanistically. 

One is tempted to say that the writer will live forever, immortalized by their words in typeface.  I do not know if the same can always be said for the scientific writer. Science evolves. It changes. If it did not, it would no longer be science. What I write about on this website is always subject to change. It becomes outdated.  I do not think the same will ever be said of the writings of Oliver Sacks.

Even as our understanding of how the brain works deepens, even as the explanations of the symptoms described in Sack’s works inevitably change, a quality of his writing will remain immutable. That is the voice of Oliver Sacks himself. While his understanding of his patients illnesses may one day be seen as old-fashioned, his curiosity and care for the patients themselves will not. 

Dr. Sacks showed the world that no one is untouched by neurology.

Although Dr. Sacks purported to be writing about patients with unique neurological characteristics, it was clear to his reader that they were also reading about themselves.  Even in his last essays published in the New York Times describing his own thoughts on mortality, readers could share in an intimate and personal experience.

Interested readers can find out so much more about Oliver Sacks’s life throughout the rest of the Internet. It’ll become clear that he was a talented writer as well say obsessive inquisitor of what made people tick.  He rode on a broad range of neurological subjects: hallucinations, music, movement disorders and more.  His passion was too free-ranging to be pigeonholed into a specialty. 

Many people I know say that Oliver Sacks is what brought them to neuroscience or neurology. I only began reading his works after I entered neurology.  Similarly, I began writing about neurology before I’ve ever read Sacks. This is probably to the detriment of my own writing.  I like to imagine how I would write differently like them very familiar with Oliver Sacks is work to begin with. How would my writing be different? More personal, more focused on the individual, less focused on the disease?  More focused on quality over quantity?  

In a way, the comparison between Sacks's writing and my own mirrors broader changes in medicine and neuroscience.

Oliver Sacks reminds me of an older time in medicine.  One of the obituaries mentions Oliver Sacks is being inspired largely by the great 19th-century neurologists, who often made their names on little more than what would be considered a mere ”case report.”   Modern science demands volume. Clinical trials routinely make use of hundreds of patients, rather than focusing on the individual.  Similarly, medicine today is focused on the bottom line, with several societal pressures limiting some doctors to as little as 15 to 20 minutes a patient. Medicine has lost some of that humanity that still shines in Oliver Sacks’s writings. 


Anything written by Oliver Sacks. Seriously, go out and get one of these books. 

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