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"Awakenings" Summary

By Oliver Sacks

nonfiction | 464 pages | Published in NaN

Awakenings is a 1973 non-fiction book by Oliver Sacks. It recounts the life histories of those who had been victims of the 1920s encephalitis lethargica epidemic. Sacks chronicles his efforts in the late 1960s to help these patients at the Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, New York.


Estimated read time: 5 min read

One Sentence Summary

A captivating exploration of the extraordinary therapeutic effects of a new drug on patients with encephalitis lethargica.


In "Awakenings," Oliver Sacks takes us on an extraordinary journey into the world of neurological disorders and the power of human resilience. This captivating non-fiction book delves into the lives of individuals who have been locked in a catatonic state for decades, only to be awakened briefly by a groundbreaking drug. With his unique blend of scientific expertise and compassionate storytelling, Sacks explores the profound effect these awakenings have on the patients, their families, and the medical community.

Brief Synopsis

Set in the late 1960s, "Awakenings" primarily takes place at Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx, New York. The story revolves around a group of patients who have been diagnosed with encephalitis lethargica, a mysterious neurological condition that left them in a frozen state for years. Dr. Oliver Sacks, a neurologist at the hospital, became fascinated by these patients and embarked on a mission to find a treatment that could bring them back to life.

Main Characters

Dr. Oliver SacksA brilliant neurologist who is dedicated to his patients and determined to find a way to awaken them from their catatonic state.
Leonard LoweOne of the patients at the hospital who becomes a central figure in the story. He was in a catatonic state for 30 years before being awakened by the drug.
Rose R.Another patient who experiences a dramatic awakening after being in a catatonic state for decades.
Dr. Malcolm SayerA fictional character based on the author himself. Dr. Sayer is portrayed as a compassionate and dedicated physician who forms deep connections with his patients.

Summary of Different Story Points over Chapters

Chapter 1: Awakenings

In this chapter, Sacks introduces the readers to the patients at Beth Abraham Hospital and their unique condition. He describes their catatonic state and the challenges faced by the medical staff in understanding and treating their condition.

Chapter 2: The Sleeping Sickness

Sacks delves into the history of encephalitis lethargica, also known as the sleeping sickness, which swept across the world in the early 20th century. He explores the initial outbreak, the symptoms, and the long-term effects of the disease.

Chapter 3: The Encephalitides

This chapter focuses on the various forms of encephalitis and their impact on the brain. Sacks delves into the scientific aspects of the disease, including the theories behind its cause and progression.

Chapter 4: Waking

Sacks introduces the drug L-DOPA, a precursor to dopamine, which he believes could potentially awaken his patients. He starts administering the drug to a selected group of patients and witnesses their remarkable transformations.

Chapter 5: The Kinetosis Blues

As the patients awaken, they face various challenges in relearning basic motor skills and adjusting to the outside world. Sacks explores the difficulties they encounter and the emotions they experience during this process.

Chapter 6: Post-Encephalitic Parkinsonism

In this chapter, Sacks examines the long-term effects of encephalitis lethargica and the development of post-encephalitic parkinsonism in some of the awakened patients. He explores the impact of this condition on their lives and the medical community's efforts to find effective treatments.

Chapter 7: Rose R.

Sacks highlights the case of Rose R., a patient who experiences a profound awakening after being catatonic for decades. He describes her personality transformation and the challenges she faces in rebuilding her life.

Chapter 8: Periodic Paralysis

Sacks discusses the occurrence of periodic paralysis in some of the awakened patients and their struggles with this debilitating condition. He explores the potential causes and treatments for this additional neurological disorder.

Main Events

  1. Dr. Sacks begins administering the drug L-DOPA to a group of catatonic patients, leading to their awakening.
  2. The awakened patients struggle with relearning basic motor skills and adjusting to the outside world.
  3. Rose R. experiences a profound transformation after her awakening, rebuilding her life and forming new relationships.
  4. Some of the awakened patients develop post-encephalitic parkinsonism, posing new challenges for both the patients and the medical community.
  5. The occurrence of periodic paralysis in some patients adds further complexity to their condition and treatment.

Themes and Insights

  • The fragility and resilience of the human mind and body.
  • The importance of human connection and relationships in the healing process.
  • The limitations of medical knowledge and the need for ongoing research and innovation.
  • The ethical considerations surrounding experimental treatments and the balance between risk and potential benefits.

Reader's Takeaway

"Awakenings" offers a poignant exploration of the human spirit and its capacity for adaptation and transformation. Through his compelling storytelling, Oliver Sacks shines a light on the lives of individuals who were trapped in their own bodies and the remarkable moments of awakening they experienced. This book serves as a reminder of the power of hope, the importance of empathy, and the relentless pursuit of understanding in the face of challenging medical conditions.


"Awakenings" by Oliver Sacks is a captivating and thought-provoking book that combines scientific inquiry with compassionate storytelling. Through his vivid portrayal of the awakened patients and their journeys, Sacks invites us to contemplate the complexities of the human brain and the resilience of the human spirit. This book serves as a testament to the power of medical breakthroughs and the profound impact they can have on individuals and society as a whole.

Awakenings FAQ

  1. What is 'Awakenings' about?

    'Awakenings' is a non-fiction book written by Oliver Sacks that tells the extraordinary story of patients who survived the 1917-1928 encephalitis lethargica epidemic. The book focuses on the author's experiences as a neurologist working with these patients and his attempts to awaken them from their catatonic state.

  2. Is 'Awakenings' based on a true story?

    Yes, 'Awakenings' is based on a true story. Oliver Sacks recounts his own experiences working with patients who had been in a catatonic state for decades due to the encephalitis lethargica epidemic.

  3. What are some key themes in 'Awakenings'?

    Some key themes explored in 'Awakenings' include the resilience of the human spirit, the power of medical intervention, the fragility of life, and the complexities of the human brain.

  4. Who would enjoy reading 'Awakenings'?

    Anyone interested in neurology, medical history, human psychology, or stories of personal triumph over adversity would enjoy reading 'Awakenings'. It may also appeal to those who appreciate narratives that blend science and storytelling.

  5. Has 'Awakenings' been adapted into a film?

    Yes, 'Awakenings' has been adapted into a film. The 1990 film adaptation, also titled 'Awakenings', starred Robin Williams as Dr. Malcolm Sayer (based on Oliver Sacks) and Robert De Niro as Leonard Lowe, one of the patients.

  6. Are there any other books similar to 'Awakenings'?

    If you enjoyed 'Awakenings', you might also enjoy Oliver Sacks' other books, such as 'The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat' and 'An Anthropologist on Mars'. These books also delve into fascinating neurological cases and explore the human experience.