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Dr. William Dement, leader in sleep disorder research, dies at 91

Dr. Dement was widely referred to as the “father of sleep medicine.”
Dr. Dement was widely referred to as the “father of sleep medicine.”Sherry Tesler/New York Times

Dr. William Dement, whose introduction to the mysteries of slumber as a postgraduate student in the 1950s led him to become an eminent researcher of sleep disorders and to preach the benefits of a good night’s sleep, died on June 17 in Stanford, Calif. He was 91.

His son, Nick, a physician, said the cause was complications of a heart procedure.

Dr. Dement spent his working life as a popular professor in the department of psychiatry at Stanford University, where he started what is believed to be the world’s first successful sleep disorders clinic. He taught a class on sleep and dreams that drew as many as 1,200 students.

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When he awakened dozing students with spritzes from a water gun, Dr. Dement gave them extra credit if they recovered and shouted, “Drowsiness is red alert!” — his rallying cry to make sleep deprivation a public health priority.

Drowsiness was the last step before falling asleep, he often said. Sleep deprivation put people at a higher risk of an accident on the road, diminished their productivity, increased the likelihood of their making mistakes, made them irritable, and actually hurt their ability to fall asleep.

“Bill Dement was an evangelist about sleep,” Dr. Rafael Pelayo, a Stanford psychiatry professor who succeeded Dr. Dement in leading the sleep class, said in a phone interview.

“He felt that not enough people knew about sleep disorders, and he thought of his students as multipliers who would tell the world about them.”

Dr. Dement’s expertise led to his appointment as chairman of a federal commission on sleep disorders. The commission reported in 1992 that 40 million Americans had undiagnosed, untreated, mistreated, or chronic sleep problems — findings that led Congress to establish the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research, within the National Institutes of Health, in 1993.

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When Dr. Dement testified on Capitol Hill five years later about the sleep center’s progress, he said he was pleased with its research but disappointed that the government had not sounded loud enough alarms about the serious, sometimes fatal, consequences of unhealthful sleep.

“The lack of awareness is so pervasive that victims don’t know what is wrong with them, and doctors don’t ask,” he told the House Health and Energy Subcommittee.

“There are no mechanisms in place to disseminate the messages, no large organizations, no masses of enlightened victims, no faculty positions, no way to break into the medical school curriculum.”

Dr. Dement was widely referred to as the “father of sleep medicine.”

William Charles Dement was born on July 29, 1928, in Wenatchee, Wash. His father, Charles, was a tax agent and bookkeeper, and his mother, Kathryn (Severyns) Dement, was a homemaker.

After serving in the Army in postwar Japan, where he edited a regiment newspaper, he earned a bachelor’s degree in basic medical science at the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1951. He paid his way by working as a jazz bassist and hosted jam sessions on his houseboat.

Dr. Dement’s fascination with sleep began in medical school at the University of Chicago.

He became intrigued with the work of Nathaniel Kleitman, a physiologist who was credited with doing pioneering research on sleep when the field barely existed. Kleitman and a graduate student, Eugene Aserinsky, first reported the discovery of rapid eye movement, or REM, during sleep.

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Dr. Dement’s fascination with sleep swelled when Aserinsky told him what the flickering eye movements meant.

“‘Dr. Kleitman and I think these movements might be related to dreaming,’” Dr, Dement recalled Aserinsky telling him. “For a student interested in psychiatry, this offhand comment was more stunning than if he had just offered me a winning lottery ticket.”

After joining Kleitman’s sleep laboratory, Dr. Dement filmed subjects in REM sleep and studied the connection between REM sleep and dreams.

Dr. Dement, who had received his medical degree in 1955, earned a doctorate in neurophysiology, also at the University of Chicago, two years later. He moved to Manhattan for his medical internship at Mount Sinai Hospital and opened a sleep lab in his apartment. He used himself as a subject for his research, as well as several Radio City Rockettes.

Dr. Dement moved to Stanford in 1963.

“It became more and more obvious that there were a lot of abnormal sleep problems, more than anyone suspected,” Dr. Dement said in a video interview for Stanford in 2016.