Paul P. Mealing

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Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Oliver Sacks (9 July 1933 - 30 August 2015)

Oliver Sacks died last Sunday, but I only learned about it today. He is best known for his book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and the movie Awakenings, based on another book, where he is played by the late Robin Williams with Robert de Niro playing one of his patients whom he brought out of a catatonic state, even if only temporarily.

I've heard and watched interviews with Oliver Sacks when he visited Australia, which I believe he did a number of times. I wasn't aware that he was born in England (educated at Oxford) because his career as a neurologist really started in New York where he moved in 1965 and he was living in Manhattan when he died. I was also unaware that he was gay, which just goes to show that it was a non-issue for him.

Sacks was unusual for someone in his profession in that he really cared very deeply about the people whom he studied and showed a remarkable empathy for people that most of us would dismiss as unintelligible if not unintelligent. He was a remarkably good writer, and prolific, and like many scientists who can engage the public through their literary achievements, he was often criticised and devalued by some of his colleagues.

I confess that I've only read the one tome by Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat), a book of case studies showing the imperfections of the human mind, but in a way that made the reader aware of its intrinsic resilience and evoking dignity, not pity, for his subjects. So even before I heard or saw him speak, I was a fan. He combined a deep humility with a stimulating intelligence - a very rare individual indeed.

This is a well researched and very fitting obituary in The New York Times.

I will take the liberty of borrowing this quote, which is so apposite:

“And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. 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.”

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