Dr. Oliver Sacks, 1933-2015
August 30, 2015 6:58 AM   Subscribe

The clinical neurologist, author, former weightlifter, and popularizer of science has died of the metastatic melanoma that he announced in February had spread to his liver. A perennial guest on WNYC's broadcast of WNYC's Radiolab, he unfailingly came across as clever, kind, and self-deprecating (including about his prosopagnosia, or face blindness). Dr. Sacks remained engaged with science and the public until the end.

The Guardian, the NYTimes, and FT have all registered their regard.

[Previously on Mefi.]
posted by Emperor SnooKloze (176 comments total) 43 users marked this as a favorite
 
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posted by metaquarry at 6:59 AM on August 30, 2015


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posted by tdismukes at 7:01 AM on August 30, 2015


I really, really adored Dr. Sacks. I am fascinated by the brain and neurology (in a different life I would have been able to make this my life's work) and Dr. Sacks just made it all so accessible and his passion for it was contagious. Plus he seemed like just a really cool, nice guy. I was hoping this day wouldn't come for a while longer.

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posted by cooker girl at 7:03 AM on August 30, 2015 [10 favorites]


i have relly complex, really ambigious feelings about Sacks, and Grandin and fame and autism and identity, and over simplifcation, and a kind of purity of narrative that refuses nuance in favour of elegant narrative writing.I think that he was a great humanist, and his essats were profoundly concerned about the ethical problems of being human. I think he was kind to difference, and curious about what that meant. I think that his late works, esp. Uncle Tungsten spent some of that energy and looked inward. I think that in terms of autism, he spent some time considering it less of a problem to be solved. I think that until his last biography, that he didn't tell us as much about him as he did a bout his patients--this medicalized discourse that expected discourse for the subject and discretion for the author. I think he also reinforced this hagiographic context we have for doctors, it ws good for Sacks ego and his book sales that he could perform miracles.
posted by PinkMoose at 7:05 AM on August 30, 2015 [8 favorites]


Not sure why, but he seemed like one of those people who had been around forever and thus would continue to be around forever. So despite his illness, when I saw the news today I thought "already?"
posted by desjardins at 7:05 AM on August 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


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posted by virago at 7:06 AM on August 30, 2015


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His writings are important and interesting, but none more so than his talk of death and dying and dignity over the last year.
posted by DigDoug at 7:07 AM on August 30, 2015 [20 favorites]


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posted by amro at 7:10 AM on August 30, 2015


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posted by Pyrogenesis at 7:11 AM on August 30, 2015


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posted by caryatid at 7:11 AM on August 30, 2015


former weightlifter

Astute, erudite, swole.

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posted by Halloween Jack at 7:12 AM on August 30, 2015 [18 favorites]


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🎩
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posted by AlonzoMosleyFBI at 7:18 AM on August 30, 2015


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posted by lalochezia at 7:20 AM on August 30, 2015


So it goes.

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posted by Existential Dread at 7:21 AM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


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posted by oneironaut at 7:21 AM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


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posted by Pendragon at 7:21 AM on August 30, 2015


Sacks' curiosity made everyone who encountered his work more curious. And his reflections on mortality over the past while have been bold and enlightening. He will be missed.

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posted by hippybear at 7:22 AM on August 30, 2015 [7 favorites]


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posted by clockbound at 7:32 AM on August 30, 2015


He was a singular individual as all people are, but who did good work and was hilarious to boot. The radio show about him always driving with the seat warms and AC on in the car at the same time has stuck with me for years.

He enriched my life just being him even though I never met him.
posted by syncope at 7:33 AM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


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posted by betafilter at 7:34 AM on August 30, 2015


One of those, like Carl Sagan, Stephen Jay Gould, David Attenborough, who made you marvel at the universe.

The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was such an eye-opener.
posted by Trochanter at 7:35 AM on August 30, 2015 [21 favorites]


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posted by introp at 7:41 AM on August 30, 2015


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Another pioneering psychonaut gone. His curiousity about the workings of the human mind was infectious and always seemed rooted in a profoundly humble and generous strain of compassionate humanism. We all knew it was coming, but it's still a big loss.
posted by saulgoodman at 7:50 AM on August 30, 2015 [7 favorites]


I was hoping we would be lucky enough to have him around for a little while longer. So heartbreaking.

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posted by chicainthecity at 7:51 AM on August 30, 2015


While some writers romanticized mental/neurological illness and others made the mentally ill feel dehumanized, Oliver Sacks as a write who made the mentally ill feel understood. I'll miss him.

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posted by Made of Star Stuff at 7:52 AM on August 30, 2015 [8 favorites]


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posted by drezdn at 8:06 AM on August 30, 2015


So sad. But what a life he led, and what an amazing legacy he leaves for us. The life of the mind writ large and for all to explore - thank you, Dr Sacks.
posted by h00py at 8:06 AM on August 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


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posted by thetortoise at 8:09 AM on August 30, 2015


Sacks' curiosity made everyone who encountered his work more curious.

I first read An Anthropologist on Mars in high school, and it opened up a whole world for me. Not just the world of science, but of other interests, of the fact that your field of study is not in any way a limiting factor in what you could learn about. I wanted to study neurology in university, because of Sacks, though I later went into humanities. I still think of him, though, as being one of the biggest influences on my teenage self, and, consequently, the person I am now.

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posted by lollymccatburglar at 8:11 AM on August 30, 2015 [8 favorites]


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posted by parudox at 8:13 AM on August 30, 2015


What a wonderfully sensitive, erudite, entertaining and intelligent man! He's done a great service for his patients over the years, but he's also done a great service for the wider public by conveying the stories of those patients in a way that was always touching, insightful and educational.

I'll bet dollars to doughnuts he's inspired many people to take up careers in neurology, therapy and other forms of patient care.
posted by Construction Concern at 8:13 AM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


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posted by Xavier Xavier at 8:15 AM on August 30, 2015


From February 2015: an eighty minute discussion between Sacks and Robert Krulwich (Radiolab).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9kxb1UvyN54

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posted by standardasparagus at 8:23 AM on August 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


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posted by mandolin conspiracy at 8:25 AM on August 30, 2015


Dr. Sacks was a longtime favorite writer of mine, and I was so sad to wake up to this news this morning. His books helped me realize that science writing can be as engaging and moving as any novel, and I definitely credit him with helping me read a lot more broadly, both from tracking down specific books and writers he talked about and more generally just from making me realize that a good writer can make any subject fascinating and approachable.
posted by jessypie at 8:26 AM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


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posted by Ink-stained wretch at 8:28 AM on August 30, 2015


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posted by bunderful at 8:31 AM on August 30, 2015


In a lengthy review in the Times Literary Supplement (13th June 2015) of his wonderful biographical book On the Move , Andrew Scull the reviewers' final line was
' It is sad to think that Oliver Sacks’s voice will soon be stilled, but his life and work are a gift to many and we can be grateful that he leaves such a legacy.'

You ought to be able to read the review here, unless TLS has a paywall on the full article
posted by jan murray at 8:34 AM on August 30, 2015


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posted by sixo33 at 8:35 AM on August 30, 2015


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Boy, I wish I could read his next essay.
posted by chortly at 8:36 AM on August 30, 2015 [11 favorites]


I think he was kind to difference, and curious about what that meant.

This might be the single best short summary of the kind of light he seemed to bring to the world through his writing.

I'll miss there being more, and we should all have such an epitaph.

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posted by weston at 8:36 AM on August 30, 2015 [22 favorites]


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posted by oceanjesse at 9:19 AM on August 30, 2015


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I found The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and An Anthropologist on Mars years ago, and some of his case stories still stick with me. Some of them are fascinating on neurological grounds (hemispatial neglect, anosognosia, increased sense of smell—which Sacks later revealed happened to him on multiple drugs), and some of them emphasize the humanity of his patients, regardless of their conditions (the man without a sense of balance who invented a glasses-mounted spirit level; the doctor with Tourette's whose twitching tics disappear as he performs surgery). I'll miss him.
posted by Rangi at 9:22 AM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


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posted by Mr.Me at 9:26 AM on August 30, 2015


I read The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat when I was eight or so. I didn't understand many things in it, but it gave me the same feeling as reading Carl Sagan and Jaques Cousteau: that there was a vast, beautiful and terrible universe out there, waiting to be explored.

Some time later, I now work with people with dementia. A large part of my job is to fight for their dignity when others would deny it. Sometimes their peers, family members, or medical professionals do refuse to to acknowledge their humanity, after they see their functionality so diminished. But my clients are as human as anyone else, and as hungry for love, laughter, and respect.

Dr Sacks taught me that, a long time ago. And I will miss him.

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posted by skookumsaurus rex at 9:27 AM on August 30, 2015 [20 favorites]


If you like his writing and haven't yet read On the Move, please do so immediately. I learned so much about him as a person, including of course the fact that he was gay. I love his writing and have been reading a bunch of his books lately, inspired by my own experience with an atypical migraine. His deep humanity and curiosity shine through everything that he writes. I'm sad that we've lost this voice.
posted by gingerbeer at 9:32 AM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


You will be missed, Dr. Sacks.

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posted by dawkins_7 at 9:33 AM on August 30, 2015


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posted by mgrrl at 9:42 AM on August 30, 2015


Humor and curiosity are two traits I admire most in people.

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posted by AugustWest at 9:43 AM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


I've loved Sacks since I first came across his books 20 years ago. He was powerfully brilliant, yet always humble. His intelligence & insight were things that he used to share share knowledge with the rest of us. While he wrote about oddball misfits & outliers, it was never to have us gawk at their strangeness, but to marvel at the quirks and wonder of our collective neurology & psychology.

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PS: dmd, your wife's pretty hot.
posted by univac at 9:43 AM on August 30, 2015 [6 favorites]


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posted by dougzilla at 9:45 AM on August 30, 2015


Humanity is slightly less smart today (but that will probably be compensated for when a few thousand of us pick up more of his books)

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posted by oneswellfoop at 9:46 AM on August 30, 2015


I tip my wife to you, Dr. Sacks.

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posted by komara at 9:54 AM on August 30, 2015 [12 favorites]


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posted by EggplantPizza at 9:55 AM on August 30, 2015


Sacks' oral autobiography on WebOfStories.

What a remarkable man; what a remarkable life.
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posted by Westringia F. at 9:57 AM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


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posted by Wretch729 at 10:24 AM on August 30, 2015


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He seemed like the kindest person.
posted by sallybrown at 10:29 AM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


Boy, I wish I could read his next essay.

That is a seance I'd attend.

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posted by Mr. Yuck at 10:33 AM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


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From the opera of The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat.
posted by Countess Elena at 10:33 AM on August 30, 2015


He was in interesting, curious, thoughtful person, a terrific writer, and met approaching death with grace. Thank you, sir.

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posted by theora55 at 10:34 AM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


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posted by tuesdayschild at 10:48 AM on August 30, 2015


[One comment deleted. People can have their own views of the man, that's fine. Let's keep the focus on Sacks, not other members.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 10:49 AM on August 30, 2015


I always looked forward to reading something new by him, or listening to one of his interviews--he struck me as a very smart and compassionate man who worked on making science accessible to the layperson. I knew he was very sick, but I was still surprised and saddened to hear if his passing.

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posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 10:53 AM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


He was a huge influence on me as a physician, fearless and honest, and joyful. As though only tangentially interested in medicine, his real interest lay in understanding humanity itself and his choice to become a physician afforded him a unique perspective on the big questions: "Who am I?" "Who are we?" "Why are we?"

By merely being witness to those who are considered on the fringes of "normal", by understanding how the marginalized and "different" are not so different, and how the human brain and the heart always figure out a way to persevere regardless, he showed us that some people who might never otherwise be heard are worth listening to; they have some really profoundly interesting things to tell us about not just themselves, but about ourselves.

Despite some very significant personal demons (the kind which have destroyed other people, but upon which he never seemed to dwell), he was able to tell these stories with patience, joy, and peace and in so doing, he resembles a modern-day bodhisattva. He approached his own death with a kind of acceptance and curiosity that demonstrates a life lived with meaning, intensity, and understanding that I hope to emulate in my own life.

This is one of the few obituaries that gets no . from me. There is no sadness, only gratefulness for this life lived and freely given back to the universe.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 10:55 AM on August 30, 2015 [30 favorites]


I really enjoyed his recent essay on the Sabbath.

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posted by 4ster at 10:56 AM on August 30, 2015 [5 favorites]


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posted by stanf at 11:12 AM on August 30, 2015


I also wanted to say that the podcast episodes of Radiolab that feature him represent a high point of this new medium. When the history of the internet is written, the opportunity for a large number of people to listen in on an intimate conversation with an incredibly interesting person who has little interest in self promotion will be considered a revolution in how humans are able connect with one another in a very meaningful way.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 11:15 AM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


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posted by condour75 at 11:26 AM on August 30, 2015


Crap. Meeting him was one of the high points of my life despite the fact that I was totally tongue tied.


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posted by lumpenprole at 11:30 AM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


I was fortunate enough to hear him speak at Columbia on the brain of the theatre artist, primarily dealing with the actor and memory. As a dramaturg who knows that every theatre talkback you run will include at least one person asking "how did you memorize all those lines?" it was a lot of fun hearing it discussed from a neurological perspective. I think half the audience was from the theatre department, and half from psychology. He was warm and inviting, and carefully considered each question. He was also perfectly willing to admit that he hadn't thought of something, didn't know the answer, or had less experience in the field than the asker. I find the books of his I've read to be much in the same spirit, and I think I've devoured most of them by now.

Rest in peace and explore the unknown. May we all live a life of such curiosity, and face the end with such grace.
posted by ilana at 11:32 AM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


I have always put Terry Pratchett and Oliver Sacks in the same "brilliant, curious, kind, love people despite people" bucket, and now they have something else in common, alas.
posted by maxwelton at 11:39 AM on August 30, 2015 [11 favorites]


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posted by Two unicycles and some duct tape at 11:46 AM on August 30, 2015


I knew it was coming (he made sure we all did), but it's still heartbreaking. He had so much more he wanted to give.

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posted by Mchelly at 11:55 AM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


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posted by sarcasticah at 12:09 PM on August 30, 2015


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posted by Fizz at 12:10 PM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


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posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:45 PM on August 30, 2015


Just a little over a year ago today, I put in a plug for Awakenings (based on Dr. Sacks's book and life) in the obit thread for Robin Williams. I can only recommend it more now.
posted by argonauta at 1:06 PM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


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posted by XtinaS at 1:09 PM on August 30, 2015


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posted by nobody at 1:12 PM on August 30, 2015


Oddly enough, argomnauta, I was intending to watch Awakenings today, but found the trailer mawkish and cliched. I may watch it later nonetheless. But I just found this on Vimeo.
"Re:Awakenings" (18', 2013) sources original Super8 footage shot by Dr Oliver Sacks' of his patients at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx who had been in a near-comatose state for decades before he administered the drug L-Dopa to them in the summer of 1969.

Film by Bill Morrison
Produced by Lawrence Weschler
Music selections by Philip Glass
It includes a shot on the young doctor riding up to the hospital on his motorcycle and other scenes of him working with patients. I feel conflicted about the choice to record video when the patients could not meaningfully consent, then had a brief window during which they may or may not have been asked for consent, but I'm watching anyway.
posted by maudlin at 1:19 PM on August 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


Oh.

I rarely feel genuinely touched by the death of a stranger, but his writings and interviews made him feel like a friend.

There is something quite moving about the sorrow I feel for a death that is not too early nor unjust, just the human body reaching it's end. (Cancer or no, he was quite old.)

Thank you Oliver, you are my friend in my heart.
posted by latkes at 1:21 PM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


maxwelton: very well put – that deep and abiding sense of humanity came through clearly in both of their works.
posted by adamsc at 1:34 PM on August 30, 2015


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posted by exact_change at 1:45 PM on August 30, 2015


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posted by joedan at 2:11 PM on August 30, 2015


The Oliver Sacks page on Facebook posted a lovely tribute that includes the news that there are 2 last essays by him that will be published soon, one in the New Yorker and one in the New York Review of Books.
posted by sallybrown at 2:26 PM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


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posted by get off of my cloud at 2:39 PM on August 30, 2015


How fitting that a man who had trouble recognising people, is recognised by so many.
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posted by Protocols of the Elders of Sockpuppetry at 4:24 PM on August 30, 2015


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@openculture: "Oliver Sacks’ Last Tweet Shows Beethoven’s 'Ode to Joy' Movingly Flashmobbed in Spain"
posted by Golden Eternity at 4:27 PM on August 30, 2015 [4 favorites]


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posted by Vigilant at 4:59 PM on August 30, 2015


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posted by drnick at 5:44 PM on August 30, 2015


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posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 5:59 PM on August 30, 2015


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I will really, really miss his writing.
posted by en forme de poire at 6:34 PM on August 30, 2015 [1 favorite]


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posted by Sebmojo at 6:39 PM on August 30, 2015


Vanity Fair article on him; he really was kind of a hottie in his youth, wasn't he.
posted by Sebmojo at 6:48 PM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


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This was coming, but I really wish it hadn't been today. Enjoyment and appreciation of his writing was something my dad and I shared. But, I wish my dad didn't have to get this news today.
posted by Gotanda at 8:17 PM on August 30, 2015


My mother introduced me to Sacks' books when I was a teenager. His was one of the many voices that shaped my view on what it is to be human, and kindled in me a passion for a biological understanding of the mind. He was an early guide on the path that ultimately led to me becoming a neuroscientist. He and his readers knew his death was coming for some time, but it still felt somehow shocking when I heard the news. But, I think his was a life well-lived, and he has left us a lot to remember him by.
posted by biogeo at 8:48 PM on August 30, 2015 [2 favorites]


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posted by On the Corner at 2:39 AM on August 31, 2015


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I never met him, I always thought I would meet him someday.

Not in this life, it seems.
posted by tel3path at 5:02 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


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posted by thivaia at 6:55 AM on August 31, 2015


I knew whenever he left us, it would be too soon.

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posted by bearwife at 7:50 AM on August 31, 2015 [1 favorite]


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posted by montag2k at 9:54 AM on August 31, 2015


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posted by Gelatin at 10:49 AM on August 31, 2015


One of my heroes. The world, and its human population, remain amazing, but we are all worse off without him to show us how amazing.
posted by OnceUponATime at 10:57 AM on August 31, 2015


I learned so much from you, Dr. Sacks. Thanks for everything, RIP.
posted by Lynsey at 11:10 AM on August 31, 2015


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posted by datarose at 2:23 PM on August 31, 2015


He died of the cancer (ocular melanoma) that I have; I was so delighted that he discussed it in The Mind's Eye, and now this.

He was 82, and that's still too young.
posted by jrochest at 3:16 AM on September 1, 2015 [3 favorites]


What a loss. He was such an inspiration and I learned so much from him.
Continue to learn, rather!
posted by Bacon Bit at 12:59 PM on September 1, 2015


From the NYRB,
Oliver Sacks, who died on August 30, was a longstanding contributor of thirty essays to The New York Review of Books. His last published article, below, appears in the Review’s September 24 issue.
Urge by Oliver Sacks [New York Review of Books]
posted by Fizz at 5:15 AM on September 6, 2015






Oh, and this review of On The Move, which I liked a lot: The Victory of Oliver Sacks
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:07 AM on September 9, 2015


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