Oliver Sacks, a tribute.

31 August 2015 Thuy On

Oliver Sacks, a tribute.

In May this year, we ran a rare, five star review of Oliver Sacks' book, On the Move: A Life.

Upon the news of his death, we thought we would share it with you again, as a small tribute to this great thinker, who contributed so many things to the world of science, art and philosophy.



A sense of poignancy comes with reading Oliver Sacks’ latest offering; the eminent neurologist and storyteller has just recently learned he has terminal liver cancer. On the Move may well be his last book. If this proves so, it’s a wonderful legacy to leave behind: the memoir is the culmination of a number of works, most of them happily blurring the demarcation between science and literature. Sacks, 81, wrote of his early childhood in Uncle Tungsten (2001), and this book is a continuation of his life story, beginning in the early 1950s when he was a teenager. On the Move is an apt title, Sacks is forever roaming, physically and metaphorically. Aside from his fascination with neurology, his febrile mind is interested in a range of allied sciences including zoology and botany. But it’s his equally fervent passion for motorbike riding and weightlifting that proves surprising (by day he was Dr Sacks in a white coat; at night he was cruising around in black leathers). The book covers a fair bit of ground, moving back and forth from England, his birthplace, to his travels for work and pleasure, mostly in the US and Canada.

Born into a scientific family (his parents and elder brothers were all physicians, and his mother one of the first female surgeons in England), it was expected that Sacks would enter the profession in some capacity, but what was unforseen was how his interest in the workings of the human brain would intersect with his love of narrative. The two would eventually meld together, like a double helix, resulting in his famous works that presented individuals with unusual weaknesses or strengths, and showed the influence of these features on their lives – the most famous being The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985).

Among many other revelations, On the Move offers background information on the writing and film adaptation of his breakthrough work, Awakenings (1973), but Sacks is also generous with his personal life. The autobiography explores his coming out in 1950s England, a time when homosexuality was treated as both a perversion and a criminal offence. It also reveals how his schizophrenic brother inspired him to explore mind disorders.

As his beloved aunt says of him, Sacks is a “restless and searching spirit”. It’s an unmitigated pleasure to be in the company of this physician, teacher and storyteller.

by Thuy On

This article first appeared in Ed#485 of The Big Issue.