In February, best-selling writer and physician Oliver Sacks announced
he'd been diagnosed with metastatic cancer and had only months to live. In his latest work, he looks back on his extraordinary life. Sacks comes from a family of doctors but always had an artist's temperament. When his surgeon mother learned he was gay, she exclaimed, "I wish you had never been born." Sacks has forever carried the sting of that moment; it prompted a "need to have different selves for day and night," a "doubleness" that may explain the unique blend of scientific precision and openhearted observation that characterizes so much of his work, including his modern classic of neuroscience, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
. It was at Oxford that he came to realize he wanted to write "essays presenting individuals with unusual weaknesses or strengths," though before pursuing that goal, he made one last attempt to gain a foothold in the world of medical research. It ended so disastrously, his bosses told him, "Sacks, you are a menace in the lab. Why don't you go and see patients—you'll do less harm," which is perhaps the nudge he needed to focus on writing.