Obituary: Oliver Sacks (1933-2015)

September 2, 2015 in General

So, what is the worldfamous neurologist doing in a gay blog? Well, although it didn’t foreground much of his work and professional life, he did acknowledge he was gay in his biography, On the Move: A Life.   He played a considerable role in popularising his particular discipline and  made his scientific speciality accessible in books including An Anthropologist on MarsAwakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.   As the New York Times succinctly put it, he “explored some of the brain’s strangest pathways in best-selling case histories … using his patients’ disorders as starting points for eloquent meditations on consciousness and the human condition.”

Sacks was born in 1933 in London. He took his initial medical degree at Queen’s College at Oxford University, then came to the United States. After he served  an internship at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco and a residency at the University of California, Los Angeles, Sacks eventually relocated to New York City, spending most of his life there.

His medical career proper began as a  neurologist at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, where those experiences of neurological treatment of sometimes intractable or difficult cases led  to his inaugural book Awakenings (1973), which brought him fame. In that book, he discussed several patients at Beth Abraham who had been catatonic for years due to an unusual form of sleeping sickness. Sacks treated them with a relatively new drug called L-dopa, which brought some back to sentient awareness of the waking world.

In his biography On the Move, published this year, Sacks discussed his friendship with gay poet Thom Gunn. As a young man in California, he undertook a motorcycle trip with the Hell’s Angels and set  a state weight-lifting record. He also wrote about his realization, in his youth, that he was gay, along with his early sexual flings, which were followed by thirty-five  years of celibate self-restraint. Although he came out to his parents in 1951 and his father was apparently supportive, his conservative Orthodox Jewish mother denounced homosexuality as an ‘abomination,’ leading to his long-term avoidance of intimacy, relationships and sexual contact. He only came out in the last year, since his cancer diagnosis, and disclosed that he had abandoned his long-term solitary asexual existence five years ago, at 77- which shows it’s never too late to awaken one’s desires.  Happily,  “he found love late in life,” the Times obituary noted, with the author Bill Hayes. At the time of Sacks death, Sacks and Hayes  had been together for six years; Hayes survives his partner.


Trudy Ring: “Oliver Sacks, famed gay neurologist and author, dies at 82″ Advocate: 31.08.2015:

Justin Moyer: “The tragic story of Oliver Sacks’ celibacy” Washington Post: 31.08.2015:

Oliver Sacks: Migraine: London: Picador: 1992.

Oliver Sacks: Hallucinations: London: Picador: 2012.

Oliver Sacks: On the Move: A Life:  New York: Alfred Knopf: 2015.

Oliver Sacks: The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat: London: Picador: 1986.

Oliver Sacks: An Anthropologist on Mars: London: Picador: 2011.

Oliver Sacks: Seeing Voices: A Journey into the World of the Deaf: New York: Vintage: 2000.




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