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Oliver Sacks dead: Famed neurologist and author dies at 82

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Oliver Sacks, the famed neurologist and author of books such as Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, died on Sunday at the age of 82. His assistant and longtime collaborator Kate Edgar confirmed to the New York Times that the cause of death was cancer; Sacks announced in February that a rare tumor in his eye discovered nine years earlier had spread cancer to his liver.

“I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying,” he wrote in a piece for the Times. “The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted.”

Sacks was born in London in 1933, studied at Oxford University (Queen’s College), and moved to New York in 1965, where he lived until his death. In 1966, he started working at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx with catatonic patients who survived the encephalitis epidemic in the early part of the 20th century; his time there would become the subject of the 1973 book Awakenings, which would later inspire a play by Harold Pinter and a 1990 film with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams (playing a fictionalized version of Sacks).

Awakenings came from the most intense medical and human involvement I have ever known, as I encountered, lived with, these patients in a Bronx hospital, some of whom had been transfixed, motionless, in a sort of trance, for decades,” Sacks wrote on his website.

In 1985’s The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Sacks covered a wide array of syndromes and neurological disorders — including Tourette’s and autism — and helped bring them into the conscious of the general public. The book was an instant best-seller. Overall, more than 1 million copies of Sacks’ books are in print in the United States.

Three years ago, Sacks published Hallucinations, which was born out of his experimentation with LSD in the 1960s and detailed various forms of imagined imagery. “I think hallucinations need to be discussed,” he said in a 2012 interview on NPR with Terry Gross. “There are all sorts of hallucinations, and then many sorts which are okay, like the ones I think which most of us have in bed at night before we fall asleep, when we can see all sorts of patterns or faces and scenes.” (Sacks had previously discussed hallucinations during a 2009 TED Talk.)

After his cancer diagnosis, Sacks remained active in media, both on Twitter (where he recently gave his support to President Jimmy Carter, who announced his own cancer diagnosis this month) and in print. Sacks was a frequent contributor to the Times; his most recent piece published on Aug. 14.

“Now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself,” Sacks wrote in the final paragraph of the op-ed. “I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”

Sacks’ final book, On the Move, a memoir about his life, was released on April 28.

On the author’s website later on Sunday, Edgar wrote that Sacks died at his home in Greenwich Village, surrounded by friends and family.

“He spent his final days doing what he loved—playing the piano, writing to friends, swimming, enjoying smoked salmon, and completing several articles,” Edgar wrote. “His final thoughts were of gratitude for a life well lived and the privilege of working with his patients at various hospitals and residences including the Little Sisters of the Poor in the Bronx and in Queens, New York.”

According to Edgar, Sacks has two more articles scheduled to be published this week in the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker.

This post has been updated throughout.

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