A Tribute to Oliver Sacks
Neurologist, writer, motorcycle racer, weightlifter, swimmer, and enthusiast of ferns, cycads, cephalopods, and minerals—Oliver Sacks was a modern day Renaissance man. He was endlessly curious about the outer world, and the inner world of the brain, and inspired countless patients, readers, colleagues, and friends. Here we celebrate Sacks with recollections from those who knew him, and hear about his life in his own words, too, in archival Science Friday interviews dating back to 1995.
Orrin Devinsky, a professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine, was a friend and colleague of Oliver’s for over 25 years. He recalled discovering Oliver’s case histories in medical school:
I was in medical school. I knew I was quite interested in psychiatry and neurology, but also in some other areas. And I’d never read as compelling case histories. I’d never seen a physician write about patients and bring them to life. And to portray them not just as patients, not just as individuals with deficits or problems. But as people. And there was some essence of humanity that I had never tasted before in my life, or certainly in my brief medical career at the time.
He also spoke about Oliver’s gift as a doctor:
Oliver brought two things together that to my view of the history of medicine were really never brought together. One was the very meticulous study of individual patients. And the second was a humanity. And a humility in approaching those patients. So that whereas people 50, 70 and 90 years ago certainly did meticulous case studies, they didn’t have the humanity. And nowadays, certainly in academic medicine, neither case histories nor humanity is a prominent area.
I think hopefully medical education’s trying to get better at allowing physicians to recognize the importance of seeing the person as a whole and getting into their life. But by the same token the reality of modern medicine is that doctors are looking at relative value units of how many patients they’re seeing in a day. And how many studies are they performing or reading. And how many insurance companies are they calling back. And prescription authorizations, and test authorizations. So the ability of Oliver to go to a patient’s home and observe them in their world, to go to their workplace, and observe them in their world, that’s just a foreign animal in today’s medical world.
Robbin Moran, curator of ferns at the New York Botanical Garden, recalled a fern-hunting trip they took to Oaxaca, Mexico–which Oliver later wrote about in Oaxaca Journal:
He was always taking notes about things. And he would have this notebook that fit in his breast pocket, and he had different colored pens, that I guess he would use, like if he was taking notes about Aztec astronomy or something, he would do it in red, and then something else, like ferns, would be in green. He had it kind of color coded. And I remember going up to him and saying “Hi Oliver,” and he looked at me and had like two different color pens sticking out of his mouth, and these colored pens in his pocket and he was writing furiously. And I began to get a sense of what a compulsive writer he was. And he was really fun to talk to, about anything. And I’m really going to miss him.
Eric Kandel is the winner of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine and co-director of the Mortimer B. Zuckerman Mind Behavior Institute at Columbia University in New York, New York.
Sue Barry is a biological sciences professor at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts.
Roger Hanlon is a senior scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.
A friend and colleague of Oliver Sacks for 25 years, Orrin Devinksy is a professor of neurology at the NYU School of Medicine in New York, New York.
Robbin Moran is curator of ferns at The New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx, New York.