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August 20, 2017   |   Ithaca, NY

ColumnsMind Matters

Neuroscientist Oliver Sacks leaves powerful legacy behind

Earlier this year, Oliver Sacks, one of the most influential people in neuroscience, announced his terminal prognosis to the world through an op-ed piece in The New York Times: melanoma that had originated in his eye spread to his liver and was metastasizing quickly throughout his body. The article was a beautiful homage to his life, and he expressed his gratitude for the time he was able to spend thinking, writing, reading and living. He did not deny fear, but in the end welcomed the final months of his life. This past Sunday, Aug. 30, he died at the age of 82.

Sacks was a doctor who came to fame through his best-selling books. A deep understanding and grasp on the brain allowed him to write scientifically for the public. Using narrative, case study examples and stories from his own life, he brought many neurological disorders to life. He was able to mesmerize readers while he demystified some of the brain’s rarest disorders.

His fame continued to grow as his books became films. This was the case with “Awakenings,” a story about Sacks’ time working with encephalitis patients and the discovery of L-dopa treatments. The film adaptation starred Robin Williams. Sacks’ writing was made into other films — one of his most famous books, “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” was even made into an opera.

Sacks is responsible for incredible findings in the field of neuroscience. He uncovered the science behind many neurological phenomena. Further, he inspired many other neuroscientists to continue researching and discovering. The mind is still widely unexplained, but Sacks has fueled the exploration of one of the world’s final frontiers. What I find to be most influential about Sacks, though, is his influence on the general public. He was able to make neuroscience accessible.

There is only so much an average person can learn about the brain by reading research articles and what they can dig up on the Internet. Neuroscience is complicated, and the terminology and science behind it is not easy to decode. Sacks, though, made it so that nonscientists could gain an understanding.

Sometimes, I feel discouraged and small and like nothing I do will have an impact. In those moments, I reread my beat-up copy of “Hallucinations” by Sacks to remind myself of the amazing things occurring in my body. Each and every one of us has a brain full of millions of neurons, each one firing and each with a purpose. It gives us power. Sacks reminded me of that power, and I am sure he did the same for many others. He will be missed, but his legacy will be continued by millions of people. His writing, both scientific and narrative, will help.