NEW YORK — There was the blind man who had the disastrous experience of regaining his sight. The surgeon who developed a sudden passion for music after being struck by lightning. And, most famously, the man who mistook his wife for a hat.
Those stories and many more, taking the reader to the distant ranges of human experience, came from the pen of Dr. Oliver Sacks.
Sacks, 82, died on Sunday at his home in New York, his assistant, Kate Edgar, said. In February, he had announced that he was terminally ill with a rare eye cancer that had spread to his liver.
As a practicing neurologist, Sacks looked at some of his patients with a writer’s eye and found publishing gold.
In his best-selling 1985 book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, he described a man who really did mistake his wife’s face for his hat while visiting Sacks’ office, because his brain had difficulty interpreting what he saw. Another story in the book featured twins with autism who had trouble with ordinary math but who could perform other amazing calculations.
Discover magazine ranked it among the 25 greatest science books of all time in 2006, declaring, “Legions of neuroscientists now probing the mysteries of the human brain cite this book as their greatest inspiration.”
Sacks’ 1973 book, Awakenings, about hospital patients who had spent decades in a kind of frozen state until Sacks tried a new treatment, led to a 1990 movie in which Sacks was portrayed by Robin Williams. It was nominated for three Academy Awards.
Still another book, An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales, published in 1995, described cases such as a painter who lost color vision in a car accident but found new creative power in black-and-white, and a 50-year-old man who suddenly regained sight after nearly a lifetime of blindness. The experience was a disaster; the man’s brain could not make sense of the visual world. It perceived the human face as a shifting mass of meaningless colors and textures.
After a full and rich life as a blind person, he became “a very disabled and miserable partially sighted man,” Sacks recalled later. “When he went blind again, he was rather glad of it.”
Despite the drama and unusual stories, his books were not literary freak shows.
“Oliver Sacks humanizes illness. … He writes of body and mind, and from every one of his case studies there radiates a feeling of respect for the patient and for the illness,” Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, said in 2001. “What others consider unmitigated tragedy or dysfunction, Sacks sees, and makes us see, as a human being coping with dignity with a biological problem.”
Oliver Wolf Sacks was born in 1933 in London, son of husband-and-wife physicians. Both were skilled at recounting medical stories, and Sacks’ own writing impulse “seems to have come directly from them,” he said in his 2015 memoir, On the Move.
In childhood he was drawn to chemistry and biology.
“I became a doctor a little belatedly and a little reluctantly,” he told one interviewer. “In a sense, I was a naturalist first and I only came to individuals relatively late.”
After earning a medical degree at Oxford, Sacks moved to the United States in 1960 and completed a medical internship in San Francisco and a neurology residency at UCLA. He moved to New York in 1965 and began decades of neurology practice. At a Bronx hospital he met the profoundly disabled patients he described in Awakenings.