When One May, In Good Conscience, Rest: Oliver Sacks Dies

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AFP photo

Oliver Sacks, the incomparable neurologist, writer, and explorer of the human condition through whose compassionate voice "science became poetry,"  has died of cancer at 82. Through many years and writings, Sacks had indulged in what he once called “extreme immoderation in all my passions,” scrutinizing the wonders of the human brain, the natural world and the vastness of human experience, often through unusual neurological conditions. Always, he sought to bear witness to "what patients and others have told me, tried to imagine what it was like for them (and) tried to convey this." Near the end, ever the clinician, Sacks painstakingly documented his own decline. As a self-described "old Jewish atheist," he also wrote about facing death, finding his thoughts increasingly "not on the supernatural... but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life." Ultimately, he said, he felt gratitude: “Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.” He also spoke movingly of experiencing the deaths of contemporaries as "a tearing away of part of myself," while insisting, as he always had, on the dignity of each life: "There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death." There was and will be no one like him. Finally, he may now, in good conscience, rest.

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Photo by Andrea Mohin, New York Times 2001 file

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