August 30, 2015

Oliver Sacks has died.

We knew he was dying. He wrote about it. (Eloquently, as always.) But it's very sad to see that he has departed. He gave us so many fascinating books over the decades. What a terrible loss!

Here's the NYT obituary, which — amid the good — includes the criticism:
Dr. Sacks began his medical career as a researcher but gave up early.... “I lost samples,” he told an interviewer in 2005. “I broke machines. Finally they said to me: ‘Sacks, you’re a menace. Get out. Go see patients. They matter less.’ ”...

Reviewers [of his books] praised his empathy and his graceful prose. Scientists could be dismissive, however, complaining that his clinical tales put too much emphasis on the tales and not enough on the clinical. A London neuroscientist, Ray Dolan, told The Guardian in 2005: “Whether Dr. Sacks has provided any scientific insights into the neurological conditions he has written about in his numerous books is open to question. I have always felt uncomfortable about this side of this work, and especially the tendency for Dr. Sacks to be an ever-present dramatis persona.”

In an otherwise laudatory review of “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” in The New York Times Book Review, the neuropsychologist John C. Marshall took issue with what he saw as Dr. Sacks’s faux-na├»ve presentation (“He would have us believe that an experienced neurologist could fail to have read anything about many of the standard syndromes”), and called his blend of medicine and philosophy “insightful, compassionate, moving and, on occasion, simply infuriating.”

More damningly, the disability-rights activist Tom Shakespeare accused Dr. Sacks of exploiting the people he wrote about, calling him “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career.”
ADDED: "I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying.... I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers...."

11 comments:

Michael K said...

The dullest writers on earth will not be praising the one who communicates with people. I read the medical literature and have written two books. It is not easy to communicate medical information to non-medical people. Most writers of medical journal articles are awful writers. Almost as bad as lawyers.

sunsong said...

Goodbye to a great man, a great human being. Rest in peace dear soul.

sydney said...

More damningly, the disability-rights activist Tom Shakespeare accused Dr. Sacks of exploiting the people he wrote about, calling him “the man who mistook his patients for a literary career.”

I read his The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat before I became a doctor. I don't recall feeling as if he had exploited his patients but I wonder if I would feel differently if I read it now. I remember you posting an excerpt of a recent piece of his that dealt with Spalding Gray's illness. When I read that, I thought he had violated his patient's privacy. I'll have to re-read The Man Who Mistook his Wife.

Beldar said...

Well played, Dr. Sacks! Well played, sir.

Bill said...

I saw him lecture at the Palace of Fine Arts in SF about 25 years ago. He spoke on migraine (about which he'd written a book - his first, I think), and accompanied the lecture with a slide show of artwork by migraine sufferers who experienced scintillating scotomas and other distorting effects. It was fascinating, and he was endearing -- dressed in a white suit and clearly shy, but in full command of the material. RIP.

MarkW said...


My personal favorite is 'Uncle Tungsten':

http://www.amazon.com/Uncle-Tungsten-Memories-Chemical-Boyhood/dp/0375704043\

It ought be assigned reading in every high school Chemistry class. Even better, it should be assigned *instead* of chemistry class.

Sammy Finkelman said...

He wrote an op-ed about Judaism just a little whole ago.

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/08/16/opinion/sunday/oliver-sacks-sabbath.html?_r=0

That was published just two weeks ago.

He finished with:

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.

I was actually supriised to see something now, so I thought he must be in somewhat better shape that I expected.

I didn't know it was that close.

Did he accelerate it?

traditionalguy said...

NPR had a nice piece on him this morning. He sounded like a wild and crazy guy that would always see interesting things where others saw nothing much .

Richard Dolan said...

In his last book, On the Move, Sacks wrote about both of the issues that the critics quoted in the obit focus on. The medical school professoriate was always dismissive of his case histories -- Awakenings, Hat, Silent Voices, Leg, etc. His books were not often reviewed in the medical journals, even as they garnered praise (and best seller staus) from the non-medical press. For long periods in the '70s and '80s, he did not even have a professional appointment at a hospital in NYC, in part because of the success of his books.

He said that he took as his model the writings of 19th century authors, Darwin as well as medical pioneers, and also Freud. It showed in the strong narrative qualities of his writings. When Sacks was writing, those authors were usually dismissed as of historical interest only, offering nothing of clinical significance to late 20th century medicine. In taking them as his models, Sacks went his own way, as he did in almost everything else.

Perhaps the best tribute to his impact on medicine is how many other doctors have followed his example in writing about their patients and practices for a general as well as medical audience. He singles out JCole, a British neurophysiologist who wanted to do a post-doc with Sacks after finishing his degree at Oxford. Sacks explained his situation as a peripatetic clinician without any official appointment, and thus unable to offer any kind of formal training, but Cole came anyway. Cole later wrote about his work with Tourette's patients in a similar manner, but he was only one of many.

As for the taking advantage of patients criticism, Sacks was acutely aware of the potential for abuse, especially in describing patients with neurological deficits. Before writing about any of his patients, most famously the ones he treated with L-Dopa in the 60s and wrote about in Awakenings, and the Tourette's patients he wrote about in other books, he made sure they not only consented but positively wanted him to describe their condition and struggles -- the "bearing witness" that was for him a key reason for writing these case histories at all. But he was criticized nonetheless. I suspect he welcomed the criticism as a reminder that it's best to be skeptical of one's own certitudes, especially when one believes he is Doing Good.

I've read most of his books, and my only criticism is that, once he became famous, his editors had less success in helping him shape his sometimes unwieldy and meandering prose. He was aware of that problem, too, and notes that Leg, one of his first books, was 300,000 words when he sent it to his editor, but the published book was only 58,000 words. Too much of a good thing, as they say .

Michael said...

A life very well lived.

Martha said...

Sydney noted:

" I remember you posting an excerpt of a recent piece of his that dealt with Spalding Gray's illness. When I read that, I thought he had violated his patient's privacy"

From what I read today, Oliver Sachs revealed nothing in his New Yorker piece— “The Catastrophe” (April 27, 2015): Spalding Gray’s brain injury— that was not readily available in already published newspaper and magazine articles. In fact the drug Dr. Sachs prescribed for his patient Spalding Gray was reported by a reporter in a different magazine.