Oliver Wolf Sacks - CBE, FRCP|
(9 July 1933 - 30 August 2015) U.K. / U.S.A.
Neurologist, naturalist & author
Oliver was born in Cricklewood, London, England, the youngest of four children born to Jewish parents: Samuel Sacks, a Lithuanian Jewish physician, and Muriel Elsie Landau, one of the first female surgeons in England. Oliver had an extremely large extended family of scientists, physicians and other highly gifted individuals, including the director and writer Jonathan Lynn and first cousins, the Israeli statesman Abba Eban and the Nobel Laureate Robert Aumann.
When Oliver was six years old, he and his brother Michael were evacuated from London to escape the Blitz, and sent to a boarding school in the Midlands where he remained until 1943. Unknown to his family, at the school, he and his brother Michael "... subsisted on meagre rations of turnips and beetroot and suffered cruel punishments at the hands of a sadistic headmaster". Later, he attended St Paul's School in London. Beginning at his return home at the age of 10 from the cruel boarding school experience, under his Uncle Dave's tutelage he became an intensely focused amateur chemist. During adolescence he became intensely interested in biology and learned to share his parents' enthusiasm for medicine. He entered the Queen's College, Oxford in 1951, obtaining a BA degree in physiology and biology in 1956.
Oliver began medical school in 1956 and for the next two and half years he took courses in medicine, surgery, orthopaedics, paediatrics, neurology, psychiatry, dermatology, infectious diseases, obstetrics and various other disciplines. During his years as a student he helped home deliver a number of babies. He received an MA degree and BM BCh degree in 1958. He qualified for his internship that December, which he would begin at Middlesex Hospital the following month.
Before beginning his internship he said he first wanted some actual hospital experience to gain more confidence and he took a job at a hospital in St Albans, where his mother had worked as an emergency surgeon during the war. He then did his six-month internship at Middlesex hospital's medical unit followed by another six months in its neurological unit. He completed his internship in June 1960 but was uncertain about his future.
Oliver left Britain and flew to Montreal, Canada on 9 July, his 27th birthday. He visited the Montreal Neurological Institute and the Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF), telling them that he wanted to be a pilot. After some interviews and checking his background, they told him he would be best in medical research. Dr. Taylor, the head medical officer, told him, "You are clearly talented, and we would love to have you, but I am not sure about your motives for joining." He was told to travel for a few months and reconsider. He used the next three months to travel across Canada.
He next made his way from there to the United States. He completed a residency in Neurology at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco, and fellowships in Neurology and Psychiatry at UCLA. In San Francisco Oliver became a lifelong close friend of poet Thom Gunn, saying he loved his wild imagination, his strict control and perfect poetic form.
Oliver Sacks on a motorcycle in NYC, 1961. (photo by Douglas White.)
Sacks served as an instructor and later clinical professor of neurology at Yeshiva University's Albert Einstein College of Medicine from 1966 to 2007, and also held an appointment at the New York University School of Medicine from 1992 to 2007. In July 2007 he joined the faculty of Columbia University Medical Center as a professor of neurology and psychiatry. At the same time, he was appointed Columbia University's first "Columbia University Artist" at the university's Morningside Heights campus, recognising the role of his work in bridging the arts and sciences. He was also a visiting professor at the University of Warwick. He returned to New York University School of Medicine in 2012, serving as a professor of neurology and consulting neurologist in the centre's epilepsy centre.
In 1967 Sacks first began to write of his experiences with some of his neurological patients. His first such book, entitled Ward 23, was burned by Sacks during an episode of self-doubt. His books have been translated into over 25 languages. In addition, Sacks was a regular contributor to The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, the London Review of Books and numerous other medical, scientific and general publications. He was awarded the Lewis Thomas Prize for Writing about Science in 2001.
In his book A Leg to Stand On he wrote about the consequences of a near-fatal accident he had at age 41 in 1974, a year after the publication of Awakenings, when he fell off a cliff and severely injured his left leg while mountaineering alone above Hardangerfjord, Norway.
In November 2012 Oliver's book Hallucinations was published. In it he examines why ordinary people can sometimes experience hallucinations and challenges the stigma associated with the word. He explains: "Hallucinations don't belong wholly to the insane. Much more commonly, they are linked to sensory deprivation, intoxication, illness or injury." He also considers the less well known Charles Bonnet syndrome, sometimes found in people who have lost their eyesight. The book was described by Entertainment Weekly as: "Elegant... An absorbing plunge into a mystery of the mind."
Oliver never married and lived alone for most of his life. He declined to share details from his personal life until late in his life. He addressed his homosexuality for the first time in his 2015 autobiography On the Move: A Life.
"I was not too aware of what was going on all around me - or inside me - I had no crushes on anyone at school (although I was turned on by the full-size reproduction, at the head of the stairway, of the famous statue of the beautifully muscled, naked Laocoon, trying to save his sons from the serpents)." Hence, "coming out" to his parents proceeded this way: "'You don't have many girlfriends,' [his father] said. 'Don't you like girls?' 'They're alright,' I answered, wishing the conversation would stop. 'Perhaps you prefer boys?' he persisted. 'Yes, I do - but it's just a feeling - I have never "done" anything,' and then I added fearfully, 'Don't tell Ma - she won't be able to take it.' But my father did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a face of thunder, a face I had never seen before. 'You are an abomination,' she said. 'I wish you had never been born.' Then she left and did not speak to me for several days.'"
In 2008, Oliver met Billy Hayes, author of several books including "The Anatomist" about the creation of "Grey's Anatomy": "Timid and inhibited all my life, I let a friendship and intimacy grow between us perhaps without fully realizing its depth." Only while recuperating from knee and back surgery, he explains, "did I realize how deep it was ... I was in my seventy-seventh year ... We have a tranquil, many-dimensional sharing of lives - a great and unexpected gift in my old age, after a lifetime of keeping at a distance."
That intimacy has doubtless been of incalculable solace to oliver.
Oliver swam almost every day for nearly his entire life, beginning when his swimming-champion father started oliver swimming as a neonate, when swimming comes naturally rather than needing to be taught. he especially became well-known for swimming when he lived in the city island section of the bronx, as he would routinely swim around the entire island.
Oliver underwent radiation therapy in 2006 for a uveal melanoma in his right eye. he discussed his loss of stereoscopic vision, caused by the treatment, which eventually resulted in right-eye blindness, in an article and later in his book the mind's eye.
in december 2014 metastases from the ocular tumour were discovered in his liver and brain. oliver announced this development in a february new york times op-ed piece and estimated his remaining time in "months". he expressed his intent to "live in the richest, deepest, most productive way i can". he added: "i want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those i love, to write more, to travel if i have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight."
Oliver died from the disease on 30 august 2015 at his home in manhattan at the age of 82.
Sources: http://gaycitynews.nyc/ - https://en.wikipedia.org/ - et alii