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A tribute to Oliver Sacks, from a science writer

Library-stacksThe news this weekend of neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks' death brought back a crystalline memory of myself at 18, searching through the library stacks for a copy of his 1973 book, Awakenings. I needed it because the brains did not show up.

An explanation is in order: The spring semester of my college-freshman biology class included a six-week lab elective. Of a few dozen elective options, I picked "The Brain" because the descriptive blurb said each student would get to dissect a sheep brain. I was a bit grossed out by the idea of a sheep brain in front of me on a tray, but my curiosity outweighed my squeamishness. I intensely wanted to examine a real brain.

However, on the first day of The Brain, our teaching assistant broke the bad news: No brains. The room moaned in dismay.

"I know," he said. "I'm really sorry. To make it up to you, I'm going to let you each do a short report on anything you want, as long as it has some relationship to the brain."

I had seen the movie version of Awakenings a few years earlier (with Robin Williams playing Sacks) and remembered my mom saying that there was a book, too, but that she had heard it was clinical and dull. Well, I thought, clinical isn't so bad, and I can stomach dull if it lets me present a book report about a weird brain disease. The TA approved my topic, and off I went to the university's biomedical library, where the long, dim, badly ventilated staircases gave me attacks of claustrophobia.

Up the dreaded stairs, through the overheated, papery-smelling stacks to the book itself: A library edition, small and lightweight in my hands, bound in an ugly turquoise cover. A book that, once I opened it, I could not put down. Yes, the writing was clinical - there were medical words, and patients were disguised behind names like "Miriam H." - but dull? No. An adventure in the brain: patients who had been frozen for decades with post-encephalitic parkinsonian syndrome coming to life again when Sacks gave them a drug, only to slowly sink back into their freeze as the drug stopped working for them.

The main thing I remember thinking is: Eeeeeeee! I want to write stories like this! It did not seem like a dream that had any hope of being realized, since I had no intention of becoming a neurologist. I let the impulse go, prepared my Brain report (a success), and subsequently read many more of Sacks' books - with great pleasure.

Even when I discovered that science writing was a feasible career, even when I became a science writer myself, I didn't seriously think back to my wild wish to write about the twists and turns of neurology. But earlier this year, when Sacks used a New York Times essay to break the news of his terminal cancer, I realized: Wait, I'm doing it. I had recently finished a story about a mysterious, devastating neurological disease called Pediatric Acute-onset Neuropsychiatric Syndrome (or PANS) in which the immune system attacks a child's brain. It's just the sort of thorny condition Sacks liked: an illness that seems to turn the patient into someone else, that makes people grapple with how our brains do and do not make us the individuals we are.

Right now, I'm making the final edits for another brain story, this one about how children are affected by the experience of severe traumas. I've also written about how children's brains learn math, about brain tumor research, about how children develop a sense of humor. Best of all, I have written many, many stories about autism, which first began to fascinate me when I read Sacks' essay about Temple Grandin, An Anthropologist on Mars (published in the book of the same name).

And so, reading the news of Sacks' death, I wasn't as sad as I had expected to be. I have a whole shelf of his books at my side any time I want a visit with him. I have a job that lets me converse frequently with his world, and - better yet - relate the stories of that mysterious land. I am sad, yes. But mostly I am deeply grateful for him, and grateful that those sheep brains never showed up.

Previously: Remembering Oliver Sacks, "sleuth of the mind," Thinking in pictures: Stanford hosts Temple Grandin and Metamorphosis: At the push of a button, a familiar face becomes a strange one
Photo by Alan Levine

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