Rare Disease Report: Oliver Sacks Dead at 82

August 31, 2015

Thanks to Rare Disease Report for this post. See more news and updates via their website here.

Oliver Sacks has passed away at the age of 82. The acclaimed author and neurologist wrote about his upcoming death in February in a New York Times opinion piece when he announced he had terminal cancer of the liver. In that article, Dr Sacks wrote, “Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.”

While Dr. Sacks knew he was dying, the article was surprisingly uplifting. Dr Sacks wrote:

“Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”

Dr. Sacks added:

 “I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at ‘NewsHour’ every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.”

We hope Dr Sacks’ last few months of life were devoted to himself, his work, and his friends.

Awakenings of a Rare Disease

Dr Sacks is the author of numerous books focused on a variety of neurological conditions—many of them rare conditions. He first came into prominence when his book ‘Awakenings’ was made into a movie starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro that illustrated how 1 drug can completely change the life of a person with a rare condition—in this case, the use of L-dopa to treat a person with encephalitis lethargica.

Liver Cancer

In February, Dr Sacks announced he had terminal liver cancer. The prognosis for liver cancer is dependent on a number of factors but once the cancer has metastasized, survival rate is fairly low (5 year survival rate is 7%). Hepatocellular carcinoma is the most common form of liver cancer. Dr Sacks had liver metastases in which the cancer in the liver began elsewhere—in this case with ocular melanoma that he thought he had successfully treated.

Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933 –  August 30, 2015)

Born and raised in England, Dr Sacks moved to North America soon after receiving his medical degree from Queens College, Oxford in 1960. He eventually settled in New York City where he began to practice medicine. In 1966, be started consulting at Beth Abraham Hospital where he worked with patients who had encephalitis lethargica. That episode of his career was depicted in his book Awakenings.

Dr Sacks held appointments at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the New York University School of Medicine early in his career, In 2007, he joined Columbia University Medical Center as a professor of neurology and psychiatry. He was also appointed Columbia University’s first “Columbia University Artist” in recognition of his role in bridging the arts and sciences through his writings.

Books by Oliver Sacks

In addition to his teaching and medical practice duties, Dr Sacks was a prolific writer who’s curious nature was depicted in the wide variety of topics he wrote about. Whether it was treating patients with ‘sleeping sickness’, understanding why so many people in Guam are colorblind, or meditating on life while traveling in Mexico, each book gave its readers a means to accompany Dr Sacks’ on his academic, medical, or physical journeys.

The complete list of his books are:

• Migraine (1970)
• Awakenings (1973)
• A Leg to Stand On (1984)
• The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat (1985)
• Seeing Voices: A Journey Into the World of the Deaf (1989)
• An Anthropologist on Mars (1995)
• The Island of the Colorblind (1997)
• Uncle Tungsten: Memories of a Chemical Boyhood (2001)
• Oaxaca Journal (2002)
• Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain (2007)
• The Mind’s Eye (2010)
• Hallucinations (2012)
• On the Move: A Life (2015)

Image of Oliver Sacks by Maria Popova [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons has been edited for space.

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