CLOSE
Getty Images
Getty Images

Remembering Oliver Sacks

Getty Images
Getty Images

Oliver Sacks died today. Cancer killed him at age 82. He told us it was coming, and how the knowledge of his death sat with him, as a man, and to some extent as a doctor. He wrote the following for the New York Times in February, pausing to quote David Hume:

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who, upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”

“I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution,” he wrote. “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.”

I have been lucky enough to live past 80, and the 15 years allotted to me beyond Hume’s three score and five have been equally rich in work and love. In that time, I have published five books and completed an autobiography (rather longer than Hume’s few pages) to be published this spring; I have several other books nearly finished.

Sacks is a hero to me because he was both a brilliant doctor and writer. In his medical work, he sought to understand what made people different and the same. He struggled to awaken patients who had suffered from a sleeping sickness, and recounted that experience in his 1973 book Awakenings (later a film starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro). He realized that the experience of human consciousness is both shared and unique, and regardless of what consciousness is, it is valuable. He helped to awaken in his readers a sense of the shared human experience, via stories of people suffering from neurological conditions.

Among many poignant stories Sacks related in his 1985 book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, he introduced us to "Jimmie G.," a patient who had been unable to form new memories since 1945. In that book, like his recent NYT column, Sacks returned to Hume, in this passage about Jimmie's diagnosis (emphasis added):

‘He is, as it were,’ I wrote in my notes, ‘isolated in a single moment of being, with a moat or lacuna of forgetting all round him ... He is man without a past (or future), stuck in a constantly changing, meaningless moment.’ And then, more prosaically, ‘The remainder of the neurological examination is entirely normal. Impression: probably Korsakov’s syndrome, due to alcoholic degeneration of the mammillary bodies.’ My note was a strange mixture of facts and observations, carefully noted and itemized, with irrepressible meditations on what such problems might ‘mean’, in regard to who and what and where this poor man was—whether, indeed, one could speak of an ‘existence’, given so absolute a privation of memory or continuity.

I kept wondering, in this and later notes—unscientifically— about ‘a lost soul’, and how one might establish some continuity, some roots, for he was a man without roots, or rooted only in the remote past. ‘Only connect’—but how could he connect, and how could we help him to connect? What was life without connection? ‘I may venture to affirm,’ Hume wrote, ‘that we are nothing but a bundle or collection of different sensations, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement.’ In some sense, he had been reduced to a ‘Humean’ being—I could not help thinking how fascinated Hume would have been at seeing in Jimmie his own philosophical ‘chimaera’ incarnate, a gruesome reduction of a man to mere disconnected, incoherent flux and change.

There we have a glimpse of Sacks, the fascinated neurologist, driven not only to identify disorders of the brain, but to understand the creation of the brain: the mind. What is the mind? And what do we make of it? If our experience of life is altered or reduced because a misfire of the brain, can it be understood, treated, or accommodated? Why are some patients so cheerful despite their plights? What joy is innate in humanity? In July, Sacks himself wrote about celebrating his 82nd birthday, with the constant awareness that it would likely be his last. The irreducible fact of life is that death is coming; Sacks of course realized this and celebrated what life he had left. This is logical, although it's sad for those of us who remain.

In his February article about his cancer, Sacks reflected on the future:

...I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

In the end, it's wholly appropriate that Sacks would find time to write his way through his final months, finishing up books, and sharing his thoughts as he approached the inevitable. What remains is not just a colossal body of work, but the memory of a man who recognized his own position among his fellows, who took it upon himself to heal when he could, to explain when he could, and simply to live when that was what remained. Let us celebrate the life of Oliver Sacks, today, on August 30, 2015. I will reach for his books, and I encourage you to do the same.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
U.S. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Matthew Henson, the Arctic Explorer Who Stood on Top of the World
U.S. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
U.S. Library of Congress via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The year was 1909—roughly three centuries after the Age of Discovery ended and five decades prior to the Space Race. For explorers of the period, the North Pole represented one of the last untrodden frontiers still up for grabs. Robert Peary ventured into the tundra in February of that year, hoping to beat his competitors to the spot. Upon returning to the U.S., Peary was celebrated as the first man to reach world’s northernmost point, but it was his assistant, an African-American man named Matthew Henson, who many experts now believe deserves the distinction.

Henson was born in Charles County, Maryland on August 8, 1866, a year after the end of the Civil War. His parents—both freeborn sharecroppers—died before they had a chance to see him grow up. Henson found himself orphaned at age 11 and under the care of relatives. With nothing tying him to his home in Washington D.C., at age 13 he set out on his own, trekking 40 miles to Baltimore mostly on foot.

He got his first taste of life on the open ocean as a cabin boy on the Baltimore-based vessel the Katie Hines. The work he did onboard consisted of humble tasks like peeling potatoes, but the ship’s skipper, Captain Childs, saw to it he received a first-class schooling in seamanship. At sea Henson was mentored in math, history, literature, and geography, and at port he was introduced to the cultures of places like Spain, France, North Africa, and China.

Following his voyages on the Katie Hines, Henson eventually returned to Washington D.C., where he accepted a job as a clerk at a hat shop. It was there that he crossed paths with the man who would shape his destiny. Robert Peary met Henson in 1887 as a U.S. Naval officer with fresh dreams of reaching the North Pole. When he entered the shop where Henson worked, looking to sell seal and walrus pelts from a recent expedition to Greenland, it immediately became clear the two were kindred spirits. Peary admired Henson’s experience and enthusiasm, so he hired him to join an upcoming surveying expedition to Nicaragua. Eager to see more of the world, the starry-eyed 21-year-old accepted.

On this trip Henson proved himself an invaluable aide. He used the skills he picked up at sea, like map-making, to help Peary and the crew navigate the Central American jungle over the next two years. At the end of their mission, Henson was among the first men Peary had in mind to accompany him on his next adventure.

After returning to the East Coast—specifically, Philadelphia—just long enough to start a new job as a Navy Yard messenger and marry his first wife, Eva Flint, Henson was preparing to set sail once again. This time the destination was the iced-over tip of Greenland. Robert Peary had grown obsessed with the idea of being the first person to reach the North Pole, and he wasn’t alone. Explorers from the U.S., Italy, and Norway were all clamoring to beat each other in the race to the top of the world.

The team’s initial trip to Greenland was the first of many expeditions into the unforgiving Arctic. With Henson at his side, Peary had a key advantage over his adversaries. Aside from serving as a blacksmith, carpenter, hunter, and dog trainer, Henson was one of the few Arctic explorers and the only member of Peary’s party who took the time to learn the Inuit language. He had a knack for building trust with the local people and quickly adapted to their ways of life. Robert Peary once said of his comrade: "He is a better dog driver and can handle a sledge better than any man living, except some of the best Esquimo [sic] hunters themselves."

It was this rapport with the Inuit and the habits borrowed from their lifestyle that helped Peary and Henson survive in the Arctic for so many years. During that time they seized tons of iron-rich meteorite (not without controversy), mapped Greenland’s ice cap in its entirety, and traveled deeper into the Arctic than any explorer had before them. Unfortunately, Henson’s success up north resulted in the failure of his marriage back home. He married his second wife, Lucy Ross, during a return visit in 1906, but his only son, Anauakaq, was born of an Inuit woman he met during his travels.

After 17 years spent intermittently in the Arctic, there was one goal Peary and Henson had yet to accomplish: setting foot on the North Pole. They launched what would be their eighth and final effort to reach the frozen finish line in the summer of 1908. With the icebreaking vessel the Roosevelt in their command, the crew reached Ellesmere Island at Canada’s northern edge in February 1909. It was the job of 20-odd men to station food and supplies along the route before returning to camp while a smaller group made the full trek to the Pole. That core team included Robert Peary, four Inuits named Ooqueah, Ootah, Egingwah, and Seegloo, and Matthew Henson. "Henson must go all the way," Peary reportedly said while planning the expedition. "I can’t make it there without him."

Matthew Henson (center) and four Inuit guides. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

In the end, it fell on Henson to lead the party to their target. Peary was incapacitated with frostbitten feet for the final leg of the journey, and Henson filled in for him as he was towed along in a sled. The plan was to let Peary take over at the last minute so he could be the first man to stand at the spot that had occupied his dreams for decades. Unfortunately for him, the team overshot their journey. Not realizing their mistake until it was too late, Henson and two of the Inuit guides arrived at the Pole on April 6, 1909 with Peary still 45 minutes behind them.

When Peary finally caught up, Henson greeted him saying, "I think I'm the first man to sit on top of the world." This did not sit well with Peary. The two remained on strained terms for the duration of their trip. Henson later wrote: "From the time we knew we were at the Pole, Commander Peary scarcely spoke to me [...] It nearly broke my heart that he would rise in the morning and slip away on the homeward trail without rapping on the ice for me, as was the established custom." By the time the two of them made it back home, one of the most successful partnerships in the history of exploration had disintegrated.

The controversy over who deserved of title of first person to reach the North Pole wasn’t limited to the two men. After returning to the States, they learned that another American, Frederick Cook, claimed to have beat them to the pole a year earlier. The photographic evidence Cook used to back up his assertion was eventually discredited, and in 1911 a Congressional Inquiry led to the official recognition of Peary’s achievement. (Today, Peary's claim to have reached the North Pole is still disputed.)

Robert Peary’s legacy would be cemented in history books from that point forward, but due to his skin color, Matthew Henson’s contributions were largely written out of the story. For a time, he struggled to find enough work to support his family. But though he may not have received all the credit he deserved during his lifetime, his feats didn’t go unrecognized. In 1937, he was made an honorary member of the prestigious Explorers Club in New York City. In 1944, he was awarded a Congressional medal, and he was honored by Presidents Truman and Eisenhower during the 1950s. Henson spent the last chapters of his life working at the U.S. Customs Bureau in New York City.

Matthew Henson died on March 9, 1955 at 88 years old. His remains were initially buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, but he's since been laid to rest alongside Robert Peary in Arlington National Cemetery.

Weather Channel Meteorologist Dave Schwartz Dies at Age 63

Kids who want to take up professional sports look up to football players and baseball legends. A person who goes into teaching had that one teacher who deeply inspired them. Children are regularly exposed to doctors and nurses and soldiers and first responders who can spark in them an interest that could grow into a lifelong passion. But when you’re deeply in love with the world around you and the sky above you, who do you look up to? For many of us young weather geeks, one of those people was The Weather Channel’s Dave Schwartz, who died on July 30 at the age of 63 after battling three bouts of cancer over the last decade.

If you’ve watched The Weather Channel at any point over the past couple of decades, you’ve heard his friendly voice at least once. Dave Schwartz was one of the few television meteorologists who mastered the talent of commanding his time on camera by having a personal conversation with tens of thousands of people at once. You weren’t Dave Schwartz’s audience. You were his friend, and he didn’t just tell you the weather; every minute he spent in front of the camera was his opportunity to personally guide you through whatever weather events lie ahead.

Schwartz started appearing regularly on The Weather Channel in 1991, quickly becoming one of the most popular meteorologists to work for the network. Bailey Rogers, a communications specialist for The Weather Channel, recently detailed Schwartz’s rise to on-camera meteorologist during the early years of the network. He began working as an assistant in the newsroom in the mid-1980s—a job he got by insisting he’d clean the bathrooms for free if that’s what it took to work there—and made his way on camera after years of persistent effort. Rogers says his ultimately successful application letter was titled “10 reasons why Dave Schwartz should be the next on-camera meteorologist for The Weather Channel.”

Shortly after NBC/Comcast bought The Weather Channel in 2008, Schwartz was one of a handful of longtime on-camera meteorologists who were laid off in a shakeup that sought to send the network in a new direction. After years of viewer feedback—including a website called “Bring Back Dave Schwartz”—the network rehired him in the spring of 2014. When I briefly met Schwartz during a visit to their Atlanta headquarters a few months after his return, The Weather Channel’s president told me that bringing him back was one of the best decisions they’d ever made.

It’s easy to see why. If you’re not familiar with Dave Schwartz, a quick search on YouTube will bring up dozens of entertaining video clips from his years at the network, including one recently when he asked viewers to send him pizza at the studio for Pi Day on March 14. Much like his colleague Jim Cantore, Schwartz’s widespread appeal was his infectious love for the weather. While Cantore is energetically nerdy—remember his pure, unfiltered joy at experiencing thundersnow six times in one night?—Schwartz’s style was more subdued and laid back, but effective just the same. Always addressing you as his friend, he could seamlessly weave forecasts, facts, and humor together to keep you informed and entertained like few others can accomplish.

Schwartz’s smooth presentation style did more than just attract viewers. He helped attract people to the field of meteorology itself. Upon news of his death, meteorologists and weather geeks flooded social media with condolences and memories of what he meant to them watching him on television and working alongside him in person. It was a common sentiment to hear that he helped spark that love of weather in someone whose passion for it is as strong as ever today. Watching him on television as a child helped me maintain my passion for weather even when other kids made fun of me for it. I partially credit him for my being a weather geek today, and so many others out there can say the same. Both the weather world and the world itself are better places today because of Dave Schwartz.

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios