Oliver Sacks Humanized His and Others' Diseases, Is Dead at 82

The neurologist detailed the final months of his life in heartbreaking essays for the 'New York Times.'

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Aug 30 2015, 1:34pm

Image: Dan Lurie/Flickr

Oliver Sacks, a neurologist, writer, and pianist best known for humanizing some of mankind's most complex and poorly understood diseases, died Sunday after a long battle with cancer, according to the New York Times.

Sacks was diagnosed with ocular melanoma nine years ago, which metastasized to his liver and other parts of his body earlier this year. He announced that he had mere months to live in February and died Sunday at age 82.

Since February, Sacks—who regularly wrote about his patients' battles with diseases such as Parkinson's, Tourette's, Asperger's, and even color blindness—has turned to writing about coming to terms with his own mortality in what have been some of the most affecting essays I've ever read.

In July's "My Periodic Table," Sacks said he has long collected elements as a way of dealing with the loss of people who are close to him:

"And now, at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence—an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence—I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity. At one end of my writing table, I have element 81 in a charming box, sent to me by element-friends in England: It says, 'Happy Thallium Birthday,'a souvenir of my 81st birthday last July; then, a realm devoted to lead, element 82, for my just celebrated 82nd birthday earlier this month.

Bismuth is element 83. I do not think I will see my 83rd birthday, but I feel there is something hopeful, something encouraging, about having '83' around. Moreover, I have a soft spot for bismuth, a modest gray metal, often unregarded, ignored, even by metal lovers. My feeling as a doctor for the mistreated or marginalized extends into the inorganic world and finds a parallel in my feeling for bismuth.
I almost certainly will not see my polonium (84th) birthday, nor would I want any polonium around, with its intense, murderous radioactivity. But then, at the other end of my table—my periodic table—I have a beautifully machined piece of beryllium (element 4) to remind me of my childhood, and of how long ago my soon-to-end life began."

Sacks did not see his bismuth nor his polonium birthday, but in his 82 years he brought clarity and humanity to a field too often filled with jargon and misunderstanding. In a review of his new memoir, On the Move, the Atlantic's Michael Roth wrote Sacks "developed a genius for paying attention to people whose illnesses might have rendered them invisible but for his gift of seeing them as beings with histories, with contexts."

If you haven't, consider picking up Awakenings, which details his use of a new drug on patients with brain swelling; The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, a book of case histories about some of his most interesting patients, or, at the very least, just read Sacks living out the last few months of his life with a level of grace and honesty you rarely see.

"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," he wrote in this month's "Sabbath." "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."