Sacks, who wrote The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and Awakenings which inspired the Oscar-nominated film of the same name which starred Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, has been described as the “poet laureate of medicine”.
His death, while sad, was not unexpected. Earlier this year he announced that an earlier melanoma in his eye had spread to his liver and that he was in the late stages of terminal cancer.
“A month ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out – a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver,” he said at the time.
Sacks wrote several books about unusual medical conditions, including The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat and The Island of the Colourblind.
Awakenings was based on his patients he discovered at Beth Abraham hospital, a chronic care hospital, in the Bronx, who were treated with a drug that woke them up after decades in a catatonic state.
Sacks was born in the UK and educated at Oxford University, but spent most of his life in New York.
New York Times writer Michiko Kakutani praised Sacks’ ability in many disciplines.
“He was a polymath and an ardent humanist, and whether he was writing about his patients, or his love of chemistry or the power of music, he leapfrogged among disciplines, shedding light on the strange and wonderful interconnectedness of life – the connections between science and art, physiology and psychology, the beauty and economy of the natural world and the magic of the human imagination,” she wrote.
The Guardian recalled a tribute in May by author Lisa Appignanesi, who spoke of Sacks’s ability to transform his subjects into grand characters.
“For all their lacks and losses, or what the medics call ‘deficits’, Sacks’s subjects have a capacious 19th-century humanity. No mere objects of hasty clinical notes, or articles in professional journals, his ’patients’ are transformed by his interest, sympathetic gaze and ability to convey optimism in tragedy into grand characters who can transcend their conditions. They emerge as the very types of our neuroscientific age,” she wrote.
Other tributes to Sacks from the New York Times, The Washington Post, The Independent, The Guardian and Michiko Kakutani. The New York Review of Books features its review of Sacks’ last work On the Move: A Life.
Bill Condie is a science journalist based in Adelaide, Australia.
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