Colleen McCullough, author of the The Thorn Birds, the bestselling book that helped cement the miniseries genre, has died at her home on Norfolk Island in Australia. Deadline reports that the 77-year-old novelist had been in ill health in recent years.

McCullough started out in the medical profession, and she was researching and teaching neurophysiology at Yale Medical School when she began writing on the side in the ’70s. The first of her many novels, Tim, featured a relationship between a developmentally disabled young man and a somewhat older widow. It was made into a movie in 1979 with Mel Gibson and Piper Laurie.

Her second book was even more successful, and became a worldwide phenomenon despite some less-than-positive reviews of the romantic page-turner. The Thorn Birds, set in McCullough’s native Australia, tackled the decades-long history of the sheep-farming Cleary family, focusing on the illicit affair between Meggie Cleary and Ralph de Bricassart, a priest. It eventually sold more than 30 million copies. McCullough was able to auction the novel’s paperback rights for $1.9 million—a U.S. record at the time. The book has never been out of print.

The timing couldn’t have been more perfect for The Thorn Birds, as blockbuster miniseries like Roots had recently begun to invade network television. The Thorn Birds became a four-night TV event in 1983, starring Richard Chamberlain and Rachel Ward, and featuring veteran actors like Barbara Stanwyck and Christopher Plummer. It won several Golden Globes and Emmys, and was second only to Roots in miniseries viewership at the time.

McCullough went on to write several books in the Masters Of Rome and Carmine Delmonico series. In 2006, she was named an Officer of the Order of Australia, in recognition of meritorious service “to the arts and to the community.”

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