Oliver Sacks - 1933-2015

By John Lavitt 08/31/15

The renowned neurologist and subject of the 1990 film Awakenings succumbed to terminal cancer on Saturday.

Oliver Sacks
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Dr. Oliver Sacks understood that “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.”

With yesterday's death of the acclaimed neurologist, who illuminated for a wide audience some of the brain’s most evocative pathways in best-selling case histories like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, the hole left behind is noteworthy.

Passing in his Manhattan home, Dr. Sacks, 82, announced in February that he was in the late stages of terminal cancer stemming from an ocular tumor. Robert De Niro, who starred with Robin Williams in 1990's Awakenings, based on Sacks’ first book, expressed his admiration to PEOPLE magazine.

"He was a remarkable doctor who made extraordinary contributions to medical science and to society," De Niro said in a statement. "Oliver looked into the human mind and found beauty. He shared his insights with the world and made the world a better place. There is no one to take his place."

Dr. Sacks first won widespread attention in 1973 for Awakenings, a book about a group of patients with an atypical form of encephalitis at Beth Abraham Hospital. Many of the patients had been catatonic, locked inside themselves for decades as a result of their “sleeping sickness.” Dr. Sacks gave them the drug L-dopa and watched as they woke up in a world they failed to recognize.

Prior writing to the book, Dr. Sacks had consumed massive quantities of LSD, speed, and other drugs. He recorded his experiences in Hallucinations, as reported on for The Fix. The day he took up writing as a venture, Dr. Sacks quit drugs for good and never looked back.

Dr. Sacks described his books and essays as scientific explorations, case histories, clinical tales, and “neurological novels.” Achieving a level of popular renown rare among scientists, more than a million copies of his books are currently in print. Although his subjects, like the man who mistook his wife for a hat, were often portrayed as comical, Dr. Sacks treated them with a deep sense of empathy and human context that elevated their challenges.

"I cannot pretend I am without fear," Sacks wrote of mortality in a New York Times Op-Ed piece. "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."

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.