A Tribute to Oliver Sacks

Eric Kotila
November 19, 2015
Oliver Sacks Portrait

On October 9, 2015, the Townsend Center hosted a memorial to physician and author Oliver Sacks. “An Anthropologist from Mars: Celebrating the Amazing Life and Work of Oliver Sacks” featured a panel of scholars who are also lovers of his work discussing Sacks’ legacy and influence on their own thought. Sacks passed away in late August 2015 in his adopted home of New York.

Born in England, Oliver Sacks came to public attention with his best-selling 1973 memoir, Awakenings, which chronicled the effects of his treatment with L-DOPA of catatonic victims of the encephalitis lethargica epidemic (popularly known as the Spanish flu) early in the century, to both euphoric and tragic consequences. A film of the same name made in 1990 and starring Robin Williams brought awareness of his writing to a mass, enduring audience.
 
Author of over a dozen books examining neurological disorders and other disabilities, Sacks was known as an extraordinary prose stylist (praised by the likes of W.H. Auden), whose empathy and erudition in recounting patients’ stories made for remarkable reading. 
 
The New York Times characterized his approach as one of deep caring and curiosity:
 
Describing his patients’ struggles and sometimes uncanny gifts, Dr. Sacks helped introduce syndromes like Tourette’s or Asperger’s to a general audience. But he illuminated their characters as much as their conditions; he humanized and demystified them.
 
In his emphasis on case histories, Dr. Sacks modeled himself after a questing breed of 19th-century physicians, who well understood how little they and their peers knew about the workings of the human animal and who saw medical science as a vast, largely uncharted wilderness to be tamed.
 
In addition to being read for sheer pleasure, Sacks’ writings were particularly influential in the social and health sciences. 
 
We here present to you the homages paid Dr. Sacks by five anthropologists from our community. 
 
Lawrence Cohen (Anthropology and South Asian Studies), “The Community, the Clinic, and the Road Not Taken
 
William Vega (Anthropology, Princeton), “Reflections on the Work of Oliver Sacks
 
Nancy Scheper-Hughes (Anthropology, UC Berkeley), “A Love Letter to Oliver Sacks: An Anthropologist from Mars, Venus and Maybe even Pluto
 
Katherine Young (Anthropology, UC Berkeley), “Indigo: On the Death of Oliver Sacks
 
Sharon R. Kaufman (Anthropology, History and Social Medicine, UCSF), “Homage to Oliver Sacks
 
 
Part of the 
Thinking the Self Initiative.