Awakenings (1990)

Last modified: May 22, 2017

‘Awakenings’ chronicles the story of the young Doctor Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) who starts working as a physician in Bainbridge hospital. Here he becomes interested in a group of catatonic patients whom have been staying at Bainbridge for decades. Although the medical community has already given up on these patients, dr. Sayer believes that more should be done for them.


This film illustrates the well-known conflict of interest of a health practitioner who wants to help a patient, but can only do so by breaking the rules of scientific conduct.This movie is included in the Fiction movies for RCR education.

Key words: Conflict of Interest
Medium: Netflix (Availability was last checked on: 14/09/2016)
Fragments: 1

  • Fragment 1 [42:55-47:43]

Internet Movie Database (IMDb) about this movie: IMDb
Biography / Drama/ Playing time: 121 min.

Content and context

This drama film is based on the non-fiction book with the same title by Oliver Sacks (1973). It chronicles the story of the young dr. Malcolm Sayer (Robin Williams) who starts working as a physician in Bainbridge hospital. Here he becomes interested in a group of catatonic patients -all of them victims of the 1920s encephalitis lethargica epidemic- whom have been staying at Bainbridge hospital for decades. While the medical community has given up on these patients, dr. Sayer discovers that they are still responsive to certain stimuli like catching or throwing a ball or listening to familiar music. He becomes convinced that with the right treatment, these patients might recover from their catatonic states. Dr. Sayer asks his supervisor to experiment on them with L-Dopa, a new medicine designed for Parkinson. He gets permission on the condition that he uses one patient only and that his/her family consents.

Fragment [42:55 – 47:43]

This fragment starts with a conversation between dr. Sayer and the mother of Leonard, one of dr. Sayer’s patients. He explains to her that he does not know if L-Dopa will benefit her son but that he believes it’s worth trying. She then gives her permission and the trial can start. At first things do not look well. They slowly increase the doses of L-Dopa but Leonard (Robert De Niro) shows no response to it. With the situation becoming more hopeless, dr. Sayer decides to take action on his own. On a quiet night at the hospital he goes into the pharmaceutical lab and, without consulting his supervisor or the pharmacist, prepares a maximum dose of L-Dopa, which he thereafter administers to his patient.


Dr. Sayer is confronted with a difficult choice: he wants to help his patient, but in order to do so he has to break the rules of scientific conduct. Dr. Sayer knows that he’s taking a great risk by giving his patient, without consulting his superiors, an extremely strong dose of L-Dopa. If things go wrong it will not only mean the end of his carrier but it might even do harm to Leonard. On the other hand, dr. Sayer believes that this risky action is Leonard’s only chance of recovery. What would a good doctor do? Is acting on his own really the only choice that dr. Sayer has? What about once more consulting his superiors?


This fragment is realistic because it illustrates the situation where a doctor has to deal with a patient whom seems to be beyond recovery. A doctor could feel tempted to try other questionable means and break certain rules of scientific conduct in order to help.

Suggested use in education

Giving the ending of this film, this fragment can be used to ethically discuss the importance of the outcome of people’s actions. For example: Are scientists always wrong to act upon their own and take substantial risks, or do we make an exception if their actions lead to success? Another point of departure could be the value we attach to intention. Because dr. Sayer’s intentions are good we tend to excuse him for breaking the rules of scientific conduct. But, why do we?


In the end Leonard gets (temporarily) out of his catatonic state and L-Dopa is also given to other patients. Nobody questions what dr. Sayer has done because his actions led to success.

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