On August 30, 2015, the AANE community lost a beloved and inspiring leader and advocate when author and neurologist Oliver Sacks passed away from cancer. Dr. Sacks had an incomparable knowledge of the brain and its fascinating mysteries and puzzles. He was able to share that knowledge with both professionals and lay people through his elegant and compelling writing. His original and penetrating mind, and his deep empathy and respect for his patients, illuminate every page of Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.
Sacks’ sense of respect and human decency was present throughout his career. In 1966 he began working in the ward of a psychiatric hospital in the Bronx. After studying the behavior of the patients for several months, and working out his own ways to engage in friendly interaction, he wrote an essay for the hospital’s journal on how the patients were communicating with each other and attempting to communicate with staff. Eventually, after raising objections to the inhumane staff practices on the ward, Sacks was forcibly transferred.
His work helped the world to understand autism as something other than just a debilitating condition. His 1995 book, An Anthropologist on Mars helped to introduce Temple Grandin and her writings to a wider audience. By simply respecting and presenting Grandin as a full human being, Sacks challenged popular and academic understanding of autistic people as being simple minded or robotic.
In 2005, AANE had the privilege of hosting Oliver Sacks as a keynote speaker for our Asperger Connections conference, in celebration of our 10th anniversary. Staff member Stephanie Loo was thrilled to be assigned to escort Dr. Sacks from his hotel room down to the podium that day. She recalls, “He carried in his pocket a card showing the periodic table of the elements, something that had fascinated him his whole life, starting when he was a boy playing with a chemistry set. While we were waiting for the elevator, he shyly took it out and showed it to me.”
The staff of AANE, as well as countless other people who have been helped or inspired by Sacks works, will miss his contributions to neurological research, clinical practice, and writing. By studying, clinically but humanely, the unusual minds of so many individuals, he helped all of us expand our own minds.
His life was a gift to us all. Although we will miss him greatly, his books constitute a precious and indelible legacy—a place we can continue to enjoy his great spirit and brilliant intelligence.