Oliver Sacks, medicine's 'poet laureate'

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Oliver Sacks, a world-renowned neurologist, authored best-selling books regarded as masterpieces of medical literature.

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.

Mr. 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 printed his writings over the years.

His death was confirmed by his longtime assistant, Kate Edgar.

An Englishman who made his life in America, Mr. 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 best sellers, generally took the form of clinical anecdotes. A man who mistakes his wife for a hat, an artist who can no longer see in color, a hospital full of patients gloriously, but fleetingly, "awakened" from years-long catatonia: In each case, Mr. Sacks sought to uncover some wisdom, medical or moral.

The most famous of his patients were the ones he documented in his book Awakenings, first 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 in the Bronx, N.Y., a place 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 Mr. 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."

The movie Awakenings, in which Mr. 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.