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Oliver Sacks, the world-renowned neurologist and author who chronicled maladies and ennobled the afflicted in books that were regarded as masterpieces of medical literature, died Aug. 30 at his home in Manhattan. He was 82.
Dr. Sacks — whom millions knew as the physician played by actor Robin Williams in the 1990 film “Awakenings” — revealed in February that he had terminal cancer. A rare and long-ago-treated ocular tumor had metastasized to his liver, he wrote in the New York Times, which was one of several publications, along with the New Yorker magazine and the New York Review of Books, that had printed his writings over the years.
His death was confirmed by his longtime assistant, Kate Edgar.
An Englishman who made his life in America, Dr. Sacks devoted his career to patients with rare, seemingly hopeless conditions of the nervous system. He distinguished himself both in the clinic and on the printed page and was often called a “poet laureate” of modern medicine.
His books, many of which were bestsellers, generally took the form of clinical anecdotes. A man who mistakes his wife for a hat, an artist who can no longer see colors, a hospital full of patients gloriously but fleetingly “awakened” from years-long catatonia: In each case, Dr. Sacks sought to uncover some wisdom, medical or moral.
The most famous of his patients were the ones he documented in his book “Awakenings,” published in 1973 and later adapted into director Penny Marshall’s Academy Award-nominated film.
The movie dramatized his experience at the Beth Abraham Home for the Incurables, a place in the Bronx that he renamed Mount Carmel in his account. His patients — actor Robert De Niro portrayed Leonard, the first to be revived — were among the hundreds of thousands of people stricken by encephalitis lethargica during and after World War I.
A large number of victims died from the disease. Of those who survived, many were reduced to a stonelike state similar to a severe form of Parkinson’s disease. With no known cure for their condition, the patients languished in institutions such as the one where the young Dr. Sacks, after failing as a laboratory researcher, found employment in 1966.
“They neither conveyed nor felt the feeling of life,” he wrote in “Awakenings,” describing the people he encountered. “They were as insubstantial as ghosts, and as passive as zombies.”
At the time, the drug L-dopa, short for levodihydroxyphenylalanine, had begun to show promise as a treatment for Parkinson’s disease. Before administering the medication to his patients, Dr. Sacks wrestled with misgivings about the Pandora’s box that might be opened by attempting to chemically rouse people who for so long had been removed from the world.
He obtained a clinical investigator’s license from the Food and Drug Administration to begin testing L-dopa on some patients. The results were astonishing.
“Occurring before us was a cataclysm of almost geological proportions,” wrote Dr. Sacks, “the explosive ‘awakening,’ the ‘quickening,’ of eighty or more patients who had long been regarded, and regarded themselves, as effectively dead. I cannot think back on this time without profound emotion — it was the most significant and extraordinary in my life, no less than in the lives of our patients.”
But in time, the positive effects of the drug receded and were replaced by intolerable manic behavior. Dr. Sacks said that he sometimes spent 20-hour days at the hospital trying to calibrate the doses. When he discontinued the drug, the patients reverted to their trancelike states.
“One or two of them said to me, ‘You open the window and you raise unbearable hopes and prospects,’ ” he told The Washington Post. “And now you close it.”
In 1970, Dr. Sacks described his experiences with L-dopa in a letter to the Journal of the American Medical Association. The responses from colleagues, published in a subsequent issue of the magazine, were furious. Dr. Sacks said he was “publicly roasted” by medical professionals who, in his view, “felt threatened by notions of uncontrollability and unpredictability that reflected on their own power and reflected on the power of science.”
The movie “Awakenings,” in which Dr. Sacks was renamed Malcolm Sayer, endeared him to the public and catapulted his books to widespread attention. Among critics and readers, he became known for his ability to eloquently capture in his descriptions the most confounding neurological disorders, from Tourette’s syndrome to autism to phantom limb syndrome to Alzheimer’s disease.
“There was a hint of a smile on his face,” Dr. Sacks wrote in “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” (1985), describing the titular patient, who suffered from a disorder of the brain. “He also appeared to have decided that the examination was over and started to look around for his hat. He reached out his hand and took hold of his wife’s head, tried to lift it off, to put it on. He had apparently mistaken his wife for a hat! His wife looked as if she was used to such things.”
In another noted volume, “An Anthropologist on Mars” (1995), Dr. Sacks presented abnormalities that he had found to have brought out “latent powers, developments, evolutions, forms of life, that might never be seen, or even be imaginable, in their absence.”
One of his patients, a painter he called “Mr. I,” had been injured in a car accident that had left him able to see only in black and white. “He would glare at an orange in a state of rage, trying to force it to resume its true color,” Dr. Sacks wrote. “He would sit for hours before his (to him) dark gray lawn, trying to see it, to imagine it, to remember it, as green. He found himself now not only in an impoverished world but in an alien, incoherent, and almost nightmarish one.”
Eventually, Dr. Sacks wrote, the painter found meaning in the highly structured, shaded canvases his new vision allowed him to create. When a physician proposed a treatment that might have restored his sense of color, the artist declined.