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Writing till death, Oliver Sacks offers words of healing

Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author of 12 books, died in August of cancer.Billy Hayes

The neurologist and writer Oliver Sacks once described himself as "a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms." When he learned earlier this year that a cancer diagnosed nine years ago had spread, Sacks lived as passionately as ever. Almost until his death at 82 in August, Sacks swam daily, deepened friendships, gazed at stars, and indulged his lifelong fascination with the natural world. And he wrote, perhaps more prolifically than ever before.

In a recent phone interview from Sacks's Greenwich Village office, Kate Edgar, his friend, collaborator, and editor of over 30 years, recalled, "He was aware that he was facing the ultimate deadline."


The author of 12 books, including "Awakenings," made into a film in which a character based on Sacks was played by Robin Williams, and "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," a collection of unusual case histories, Sacks wrote very personally at the end of his life. In his 2015 memoir, "On the Move," completed a few weeks before he learned of his terminal diagnosis, Sacks wrote about his past drug addiction and his life as a gay man. In a series of four essays published in The New York Times — the first as he was turning 80, and the last three after he learned he was dying — Sacks wrote about his childhood, and about living fully while facing death. Those four essays have now been collected in a slim new volume titled "Gratitude." Edgar and Sacks's partner, the photographer Bill Hayes, offer a foreword, and Hayes has contributed several photographs.

Edgar said that Sacks was gratified by the overwhelmingly positive response to his last writings. She said he was driven more by what she described as "the raw need to write" than by a desire to heal his readers, but, she said, "He can't possibly not have realized how healing his work was."


Shortly before his death, Sacks established the Oliver Sacks Foundation, for which Edgar serves as executive director. Eventually, Edgar said, the foundation will work, as Sacks did, "to reduce the stigma around mental and neurological conditions and to act as a counterbalance to the wonderful technologies we have in medicine today. To be a voice for the individual, for human contact in medicine."

But Edgar's immediate task is to sift through Sacks's extensive archive of unpublished writing, including several works near completion. Will readers have new books by Oliver Sacks to look forward to? "Absolutely!" Edgar said. "There will be a number of them. The last week or so of his life he was dictating to me a foreword to one of those books."