The Duke Lemur Center mourns the passing of Dr. Oliver Sacks. He was a remarkable man with a profound appreciation of the “interconnectedness of all living things”, and he loved lemurs in particular. Our deepest sympathies go out to his partner, Billy Hayes, and to all those who knew and loved him. We grieve with you. Image: Oliver Sacks with Pia, a Coquerel’s sifaka, and DLC Director Anne Yoder.

By Anne Yoder, Director of the Duke Lemur Center (2007-2017).

Originally published in the Duke Lemur Center’s annual report, October 2015.

August 30, 2015 was a day of mourning around the world as we learned that the great neurologist and author Dr. Oliver Sacks had died. Obituaries and remembrances poured forth over the subsequent weeks, with one and all celebrating the man and his work, both as a physician and as a writer. He was praised for the brilliance of his mind, his kindness, his wisdom, and most particularly, for his unique capacity for seeing the human spirt trapped within the profoundly disabled patients with whom he worked over the course of his remarkable career. And he had another special characteristic that was less well known: he loved lemurs.

The story of how this was so, and how it came to be that I was among the very lucky people with the privilege of knowing him simply as “Oliver,” comprises the subject of this tribute. I write it with tremendous pride and deep sorrow. Though our friendship was brief when measured by the few hours spent in each others’ company, it endured for nearly a decade, and was, for me, deeply meaningful. It was a friendship cemented by our shared fascination with lemurs.

It all began in 2007 when Oliver was on a speaking tour in the Triangle area. In the course of these events, he had occasion to meet former Duke Provost Peter Lange and express to him his interest in visiting the Duke Lemur Center. I will never forget the Saturday morning when I awoke to find a message from Peter on my answering machine, telling me of Oliver’s interest and asking if I could arrange for a special tour. Having been a fan of Oliver’s work for many years (and always, of course, eager to accommodate Peter’s wishes), I responded with alacrity. And so it came to pass that I suddenly and very unexpectedly was the personal guide of the great Oliver Sacks!

The tour was marvelous. Oliver was so very kind, and humble, and gracious — and completely mesmerized by the lemurs. With each new encounter, Oliver would fall into a deep reverie, as if he was attempting to gaze into the soul of each and every lemur. After long periods of quiet contemplation, he would then turn his attention back to me and his other human companions, peppering us with some of the most detailed and insightful questions regarding lemur biology and cognition that I have ever encountered, before or since. Though the tour lasted for more than two hours, it seemed over in an instant. It was for me one of the most remarkable and rewarding moments in a decades-long career as a lemur biologist.

And it seems clearly to have been a powerful experience for Oliver as well. By remarkable coincidence, my parents happened to meet Oliver the very next evening, at a reception at the National Humanities Center. My father approached and introduced himself, mentioning that he was my father, and inquiring whether Oliver recalled having seen the lemurs on the previous day. Oliver’s reply: “I have thought of little else.”

Subsequent to his visit, Oliver sent me a beautiful letter of thanks, handwritten with his iconic fountain pen and cream-colored stationary. And thus began a correspondence between the two of us, hand-written letter following hand-written letter, that persisted for many months. Eventually, the correspondence lapsed, and though I can’t recall who last wrote to whom, the connection formed was for me indelible. Over the subsequent years, I read the steady stream of Oliver’s brilliant essays in the New York Times, Nature, and The New Yorker (just name your favorite distinguished publication venue) with a special sense of pride and privilege. When I read his now famous essay in the New York Times, “My Own Life,” wherein he announced his diagnosis of terminal cancer and contemplation of his impending death, I was stunned and saddened beyond expression. How was it even possible that this great man could cease to exist? “I cannot pretend I am without fear,” he wrote. “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… 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.”

And when only a few days later, I read his essay in The New Yorker, “9th Avenue Reverie,” in which he expressed his regret over never having journeyed to Madagascar and declared “I love lemurs,” I knew that I must write to him again. I did so immediately, expressing my great concern for his health and my profound response to his essay, and ending with a heartfelt invitation to return to the DLC. And so it came to be that another visit to our lemurs was arranged.

On July 17th, only weeks before his death, Oliver, accompanied by his beloved partner and fellow writer, Billy Hayes, returned for a final visit with the lemurs. I was gratified and humbled beyond measure that this great man would choose to visit the Duke Lemur Center at such a time: facing mortal illness and weakened by his continuing and aggressive medical treatments. But even under these conditions — conditions that would have defeated a lesser man — together we three enjoyed a cherished holiday, spanning a 24-hour period. Oliver and I reminisced about his first visit, our previous correspondence, and most especially about our shared passion for the wondrous creatures that had brought us together so many years before. The day of the tour was brutally hot, and Oliver’s health was failing, but Billy’s tender care, the marvelous accommodations of the DLC staff, and, most essentially, Oliver’s unquenchable spirit and curiosity, made the day magical. Such is the power of lemurs. As Oliver observed in his “9th Avenue Reverie” piece, “One has to see them, study them, to grasp the origin of our primate nature. Apes and monkeys do not take us far enough back.”

Against all odds, given the heat and rather treacherous terrain, we concluded the day with a long visit in the forest among the free-ranging sifakas and ringtailed lemurs, ending the tour at twilight. After a laborious descent from the forest, it was clear that the time had come for rest and recovery. But despite the heat and physical exertion, it was evident that Oliver had relished his time with the lemurs. Billy later told me that as they drove away, Oliver said quietly, “I think that is the most beautiful sight I have ever seen; it is the vitality of the lemurs that is so beautiful … and the dedication of those who care for them.”