Remembering a Medical Man for All Seasons

Oliver Sacks says farewell to a grateful public.

Posted Sep 22, 2015

Wikimedia Commons
Source: Wikimedia Commons

I first encountered Oliver Sacks in 1979 when I was working on an inpatient unit at the Bronx Psychiatric Center. I sent a patient to the Neurology Clinic for evaluation and received a report that immediately grabbed my attention. Handwritten in meticulously styled script and sparkling prose was a compelling narrative of the patient’s history and elucidation of his diagnosis. Rather than the dry clinically formulaic medical consults that I was used to getting (and guilty of producing myself), this consult read like a short story.

Wondering who had composed this extraordinary missive, I visited the clinic and introduced myself to Oliver.  He was a gnome-like little man, short and stout in stature with a round face and full beard, a twinkle in his eye and an unusual cadence in his voice with a lilting British accent. From that initial interaction, it was apparent to me that Oliver was a uniquely gifted person with amazing observational skills and expressive talents. I was struck by the incongruity of this rarefied talent squirreled away in the dingy clinic of a state mental institution. 

Despite these modest beginnings, I was not entirely surprised when, years later, he became a best selling author. Our careers came full circle in 2007, when he joined Columbia University as an “Arts and Sciences Scholar” and a member of my department, where he quickly became a favorite with students and residents. When he first arrived at my office, with his faithful companion, Kate Edgar, I welcomed him to the faculty and showed them to his office. I was startled when he objected that the office was too small, as it was standard size and with a beautiful view of the New Jersey palisades and the Hudson River, in which he periodically swam. I was accustomed to outsized egos in dealing with talented faculty in academic medicine, but did not expect this from Oliver. However, Kate quickly explained that they needed a full sized couch, in addition to desk and writing table, because Oliver’s work habits entailed a daily nap. Needless to say I promptly obliged.

Over time, Oliver’s hearing, ophthalmologic, and orthopedic problems worsened and began to limit the scope of his activities. It was hard for him to take questions and engage in discussion after his lectures or readings. In addition, he found social gatherings challenging because of the background noise and cluttered sensory environment.

When it became difficult for him to travel to the Columbia Medical campus on the Upper West Side from his Greenwich Village home, he held seminars at his home for our trainees. Through it all he continued to be intellectually and physically vital, and continued his writing.

His last essays in the New York Times were some of the most moving articles he ever wrote, in which he openly shared his intimate feelings about life and death. What a remarkable man… what a remarkable life. From that first consult that I received, to his final article, Oliver remained true to his medical muse. In coping with cancer and dying, he comported himself with the same humility and grace as during his amazing life, providing an engaging and poignant narrative of his experience till the end.

Jeffrey Lieberman is Professor and Chair of Psychiatry at Columbia University and New York Presbyterian Hospital and the author of Shrinks, The Untold Story of Psychiatry (Little, Brown and Company, March 2015).