Death of atheist Dr Oliver Sacks
Readers of the weekly Freethinker bulletin may recall that, on July 9 of this year, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks was the subject of our “Born on this day” feature.
Sadly, today we learned that Sacks, an atheist who was branded by his mother as an “abomination” because he was gay, has died at the age of 82.
According to Why Evolution is True, Sacks died of cancer this morning in New York.
He documented his terminal condition (a melanoma in his eye that eventually metastasized to his brain) and his thoughts on mortality in a series of poignant pieces.
Today’s arts section of The New York Times contains a postmortem appraisal, “Oliver Sacks, casting light on the interconnectedness of life.”
The WEIT tribute said:
He was a delightful guy, much admired and loved, and, at the end, finally came out as a gay man. How sad that he found true love only at the end of a closeted life! But at least he had that experience, short as it was.
Sacks’s last piece in the NY Times, “Sabbath“, appeared just two weeks ago, and ended this way:
And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life – achieving a sense of peace within oneself.
I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.
Sacks was born in London, England, to a Jewish couple: Samuel Sacks, a medical general practitioner, and Muriel Elsie Landau, one of England’s first female surgeons.
He earned his medical degree at Oxford University (Queen’s College), and did residencies and fellowship work at Mount Zion Hospital in San Francisco and at UCLA.
Since 1965, he lived in New York, where he was a practicing neurologist, while maintaining his British citizenship. In July of 2007, he was appointed Professor of Neurology and Psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, and he was also designated the university’s first Columbia University Artist.
Dr Sacks, dubbed “the poet laureate of medicine,” by the The New York Times, considered himself a popular scientist in the tradition of Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan. He is the best-selling author of many books about the mysteries and marvels of the human mind.
Sacks was the subject of a 1990 movie, Awakenings, a drama based on Oliver Sacks’ 1973 memoir of the same title. It tells the true story of Sacks, fictionalised as American Malcolm Sayer and portrayed by the late Robin William.
Hallucinations, his 12th, explores the various ways in which we may viscerally experience worlds that, ultimately, do not exist. He wrote:
One must wonder to what extent hallucinatory experiences have given rise to our art, folklore, and even religion.
In 2013 Sacks, who was an honorary director of the US Freedom From Religion Foundation, said:
I have no belief in (or desire for) any post-mortem existence, other than in the memories of friends and the hope that some of my books may still ‘speak’ to people after my death.
Atheism came at a tender age to Sacks. When he was a lad he planted two rows of radishes in the vegetable garden at his boarding school. He prayed for God to bless one or curse the other, whichever He thought best. When the two rows grew up to be identical, Sacks gave up belief in any reality beyond that which could be proved rationally by science.
Hat tip BarrieJohn