Oliver Sacks, the acclaimed neurologist and author who introduced the world to what brain disorders can teach us about our minds, died on Sunday in his New York City home.
Sacks’ longtime assistant said the doctor had "a very good death, in the same way that he'd had a very good life,” according to the BBC.
For decades, Dr. Sacks had introduced the world to “both the extraordinary ways in which the brain and mind can change and the courage of the individuals who adapt to those changes,” wrote The New Yorker.
By bringing his humanity and medical expertise to accounts of patients, “Dr. Sacks achieved a level of popular renown rare among scientists,” The New York Times reported. “More than a million copies of his books are in print in the United States, his work was adapted for film and stage, and he received about 10,000 letters a year.”
Sacks, who was born in London and moved to New York in 1965, was considered a poet as well as a renowned scientist.
He chronicled the neural correlates of hallucinations, facial recognition, and amnesia, though much of the world came to know his work through “Awakenings,” his memoir on bringing patients who had survived the 1917-1928 encephalitis epidemic out of their catatonic state. The book was later turned into an Oscar-nominated movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.
Sacks used his celebrity to promote further research into consciousness and the brain’s pathways, praising in an interview with BBC the medical advances made in “the last 15 years” while emphasizing how much was still unknown about the brain.
“Something like 100 million groups of cells, each with up to 10,000 connections, and constant communication... It’s larger than the number of stars in the universe,” he said. “So we are very far from getting an intimate picture of what goes in the brain. It’s a long-term project, it will probably take at least 30 or 50 years.”
It was perhaps his continuous enthusiasm and deep compassion with patients that made Sacks such an infectious spirit. He often described seeing patients as “an adventure, and a form of discovery,” profiling among many a doctor diagnosed with Tourette Syndrome and a man who lost the ability to decipher what he was seeing.
“As a physician, I have to try and define what's going on, and to reassure people, especially to reassure them that they're not going insane,” said Sacks in a 2009 TED talk.
“I want to know what all of my patients experience,” he told Charlie Rose in a 1995 interview. It’s not sufficient for me just to heal, to look at it. I want to sort of really look at it, dive in, experience it if I can.”