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February 2016

In Memoriam: Oliver Sacks, MD (July 9, 1933, to August 30, 2015)

Author Affiliations
  • 1Neurological Institute, Columbia University Medical Center, New York, New York

Copyright 2016 American Medical Association. All Rights Reserved. Applicable FARS/DFARS Restrictions Apply to Government Use.

JAMA Neurol. 2016;73(2):246-247. doi:10.1001/jamaneurol.2015.3887

Oliver Sacks, MD, was a man in motion. He was a motorcyclist, mile-a-day swimmer, weight lifter, and traveler to exotic lands. He wrote 13 books,113 several of which were best sellers. Part of the proceeds of these sales are now in the Oliver Sacks Foundation, a nonprofit organization he established to continue publishing his work, preserve his archives, and support use of the case history to advance humanism in medicine. The cover of his most recent book is adorned by a photograph of a young Dr Sacks astride a motorcycle and dressed in a black leather outfit. The book, a memoir published shortly before his death, is entitled On the Move: A Life.13

Oliver Sacks, MD

Oliver Sacks was born in London on July 9, 1933, the son of 2 physicians and 1 of 4 brothers. He received his BA degree in physiology and biology from Queen’s College, Oxford, and his medical training at Middlesex Hospital in London. Arriving in the United States in 1961, he did further training at Mt. Zion Hospital in San Francisco, followed by a residency in neurology and neuropathology at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles). He came to New York in 1965, working as a fellow and later as an instructor and then professor at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. He also joined the faculty at New York University in 1992 as adjunct professor. He then moved in 2007 to Columbia University as a professor of neurology and psychiatry and as Columbia University Artist in recognition of his unique ability to bring together the arts and sciences. In 2012, he moved back to New York University as a professor of neurology, a position he held at the time of his death.

In addition to the books, Dr Sacks wrote in other venues: The New York Times,14The New Yorker,15,16 and The New York Review of Books.17 A few books were adapted as motion pictures or inspired plays, documentaries, and even a ballet.

One of his early books was Awakenings,2 which was based on his experience as a neurologist at a nursing home in the Bronx borough of New York City. The story attracted a widespread audience in the Oscar-nominated film starring Robert De Niro as a patient with postencephalitic parkinsonism who was severely disabled by widespread, 4-limb rigidity. The character based on Dr Sacks was played by the late Robin Williams.

The sorry state of these survivors of the epidemic of encephalitis lethargica was dramatically reversed by the administration of levodopa, a drug that was greeted enthusiastically by neurologists for providing a visibly more effective treatment of what was presumably an untreatable and chronic age-related neurodegenerative disorder (parkinsonism). The limitations of levodopa therapy include adverse effects; thus, other drugs have also been applied. In the wake of these new and unproved agents, a new neurologic specialty—movement disorders—emerged in the 1970s.

Several of Dr Sacks’ books are autobiographical. A Leg to Stand on3 describes the result of a mountain climbing accident; the author fractured a femur but, despite severe pain, managed to make it down the mountain. During the following 3 weeks, he experienced an odd lack of “ownership” of the deafferented limb and struggled to understand this feeling in both physiologic and philosophical terms. His inquisitiveness and his personal experience led him to study mind-altering drugs, especially during the 1960s, and he later wrote a book entitled Hallucinations.12

A 2015 essay in The New York Times described his mortal illness. The piece was entitled My Own Life,14 which was also the name used for the autobiography of David Hume, the 18th-century philosopher.18 Dr Sacks’ disease was a uveal melanoma that had metastasized to his liver. During his final illness, he expressed gratitude for a long and well-lived life.

Dr Sacks was not merely a skilled popularizer, he was a scholar of genius proportions as he delved into the history of the neurologic conditions he was studying. He explored the literature that had been written by the great neurologists of the past, including Hughlings Jackson, Henry Head, Kurt Goldstein, and A. R. Luria. In his final book,13 Dr Sacks wrote with verve and openness about his life, his rejection by the medical establishment, and his mother’s stern disapproval of his homosexuality.

Oliver Sacks died on August 30, 2015. At his bedside were the 2 most important people in his life: Bill Hayes, the writer who was Dr Sacks’ partner for the past 7 years, and Kate Edgar, his collaborator and editor, who will now direct the Oliver Sacks Foundation.

In 1990, I was president of the American Academy of Neurology. It was the year we launched the Decade of the Brain. To commemorate this event, we searched for an appropriate speaker to address the annual meeting of the academy. Several members of the board, including me, were in favor of asking Oliver Sacks to address the meeting. One member dismissed this idea. “We need a prominent investigator, not a story teller,” said the dissenter. “But this ‘story teller’ happens to be the most famous neurologist in the entire world,” I replied. Dr Sacks spoke to an audience of several hundred neurologists and their guests and then spent an hour after his talk signing programs. For me, it was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

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Article Information

Corresponding Author: Lewis P. Rowland, MD, Neurological Institute, Columbia University Medical Center, 710 W 168th St, PO Box 147, New York, NY 10032 (

Conflict of Interest Disclosures: None reported.

Sacks  O. Migraine. Los Angeles: University of California Press; 1970.
Sacks  O. Awakenings. London, England: Duckworth; 1973.
Sacks  O. A Leg to Stand on. New York, NY: Summit Books; 1984.
Sacks  O. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. New York, NY: Summit Books; 1985.
Sacks  O. Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf. Berkeley: University of California Press; 1989.
Sacks  O. An Anthropologist on Mars. New York, NY: Alfred A Knopf; 1995.
Sacks  O. The Island of the Colorblind. New York, NY: Alfred A Knopf; 1997.
Sacks  O. Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood. New York, NY: Alfred A Knopf; 2001.
Sacks  O. Oaxaca Journal. New York, NY: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group; 2002.
Sacks  O. Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain. New York, NY: Alfred A Knopf; 2007.
Sacks  O. The Mind’s Eye. New York, NY: Alfred A Knopf; 2010.
Sacks  O. Hallucinations. New York, NY: Alfred A Knopf; 2012.
Sacks  O. On the Move: A Life. New York, NY: Alfred A Knopf; 2015.
Sacks  O. My own life: Oliver Sacks on learning he has terminal cancer. The New York Times. February 19, 2015:A25.
Sacks  O. The catastrophe: Spalding Gray’s brain injury. The New Yorker. April 27, 2015:26-30.
Sacks  O. Filter fish: at life’s end, rediscovering the joys of a childhood favorite. The New Yorker. September 14, 2015:40.
Sacks  O.  Urge. New York Rev Books. September 24, 2015:4.
Hume  D. My own life. Published April 18, 1776. Accessed December 18, 2015.