Oliver Sacks, the Doctor
PHOTOGRAPH BY CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / MAGNUM
Oliver Sacks, a dear colleague of mine at The New Yorker and in the world of medicine, was an inspiration to me and to countless physicians. A great deal will be said in the coming days about Oliver’s unique literary output—masterful books including “An Anthropologist on Mars,” “Awakenings,” and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.” But we should remember that he also embodied in his medical practice a kind of ideal approach—creative, sensitive, and large-hearted—to his many patients. He was an extraordinary and exemplary doctor.
Neurology is often depicted as a discipline of great detachment. Sacks, who was eighty-two when he died, trained in the field before the advent of the CT scan and the MRI. He learned to observe his patients in extreme detail, calling on his professional training and uncanny perception to make meticulous analyses of motor strength, reflexes, sensation, and mental status; in doing so, he arrived at a diagnosis that might locate a lesion within the anatomy of the brain or spinal cord. And yet, because medical technology had only gone so far in those days, once this intellectual exercise was completed, there was often very little that could be done to ameliorate most neurological maladies.
Sacks showed that it was possible to overcome this limited perspective. He questioned absolutist categories of normal and abnormal, healthy and debilitated. He did not ignore or romanticize the suffering of the individual. He sought to locate not just the affliction but a core of creative possibility and a reservoir of potential that was untapped in the patient. There was the case history, for instance, of a color-blind painter who lost all perception of color but discovered that he could capture the nuances of forms and shapes in hues of black and gray with great mastery.