We science-medicine-poetry junkies, along with a sizeable portion of the world’s population, are mourning the death of Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author who died last Sunday from metastasized melanoma. And as enthusiasts of Dr. Sacks’ catechisms on the soul of the patient, we turn to his own words of mourning, written over 40 years ago for his close friend, the poet WH Auden:
Wystan’s departure affected me like a sudden darkness, the eclipse of all light and reality from the world. I knew him to be a man mortally ailing, and when he left [the U.S.] I mourned his death in advance. I suddenly realized what I had never properly avowed before, that he had been a beacon for me, a reality-bearer, so that his departure subtracted reality from my world… and there is a Wystan-shaped space which will never be filled.
Being a New Yorker, I had the great fortune of hearing him speak several times, and to commingle with him at Cornelia Street Café in the Village, where the wonderful cultural series Entertaining Science took root over 15 years ago.
The opening paragraph of Michiko Kakutani’s New York Times essay “Oliver Sacks: Casting Light on the Interconnectedness of Life” wonderfully elucidates the gift of this renaissance medicine man:
It’s no coincidence that so many of the qualities that made Oliver Sacks such a brilliant writer are the same qualities that made him an ideal doctor: keen powers of observation and a devotion to detail, deep reservoirs of sympathy, and an intuitive understanding of the fathomless mysteries of the human brain and the intricate connections between the body and the mind.
Indeed, as quoted in Salon’s fine tribute, Sacks nails the ‘patient-centric’ medical practice by invoking Dr. William Osler’s 75-character maxim: “Ask not what disease the person has, but rather what person the disease has.”
Sacks’ remembrance of Auden, quoted above, was published in a 1975 compilation of tributes edited by Stephen Spender, long out of print. The essay is remarkable because it captures the spirit of “medical humanities” – a field amplified by Sacks when he joined Columbia University Medical Center in 2007. As described in the PR upon his hiring, “Sacks becomes a one-man embodiment of the multidisciplinary scholarship that has been a priority of Columbia President Lee C. Bollinger… this exemplifies the University’s effort to bridge the gap between the study of neuroscience and other disciplines in which scholars work to understand human behavior, including economics, social science, law and the arts.”
That embodiment is crystallized in the tribute to Auden, with invocations of psychology, poetry, sociology, storytelling, medicine and more. And those very qualities that he so adoringly attributes to Auden can be transcribed to Sacks’ own obituary, as excerpted below.