Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

In 1973, Oliver Sacks published the first edition of Awakenings, a brilliant account of his work with a group of elderly patients who had contracted sleeping sickness (encephalitis lethargica) in the great epidemic after World War I and had later developed symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. Sacks presents twenty case histories, in which he describes the remarkable “awakenings” these patients experienced when, beginning in the spring of 1969, the new drug laevo-dihydroxyphenylaline (L-Dopa) was administered to them. Many of these patients had been existing in a catatonic state for decades, since the onset of their illness, “dormant volcanoes” whose lives were suddenly transformed when they were “awakened.” In the third edition of Awakenings, published in 1987, a new foreword, an epilogue in which he updates the case histories of his twenty patients since 1973, and a section discussing the aftermath of their awakenings have been added.

In 1969, Sacks was a young neurologist, one year out of his residency, working with postencephalitic patients on the wards of his fictionalized Mount Carmel Hospital (actually Beth Abraham Hospital in the Bronx). As he witnessed the effects of the then-new miracle drug L-Dopa, he started keeping careful notes and urging his patients to keep journals to record their remarkable transformations. Dissatisfied with the limitations of clinical case histories, Sacks decided to keep biographical accounts...

(The entire section is 539 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

Klawans, Harold L. “Awakenings,” in The Journal of the American Medical Association. CCLX (July 8, 1988), pp. 273-274.

Kohn, Marek. “Oliver Sacks,” in New Statesman. CXII (November 28, 1986), pp. 19-20.

Liebmann-Smith, Richard. “More Clinical Tales,” in The New Yorker. LXIII ( May 4, 1987), pp. 30-31.

Prescott, P. S. Review in Newsweek. LXXXIV (July 15, 1974), p. 85.