When William Dement began working as a medical researcher in the 1950s, the topic of sleep was considered a yawn, scientifically speaking — an area perhaps appropriate for Freudian psychoanalysis but not for vigorous investigation by white-coated lab experts.
But with a pair of colleagues at the University of Chicago, Dement conducted some of the earliest studies of rapid-eye movement sleep, known as REM, which he identified as the stage in which most dreams happen. He also revealed the phases of the sleep cycle, using electroencephalograms to monitor subjects' brain waves and polysomnography to track eye movements, blood oxygen levels and other body functions during sleep.
Dement demonstrated that slumber was far from a single, passive state. And over the next few decades he helped turn the study of sleep into a robust scientific discipline, presiding over experiments on himself, his family, a few Rockettes dancers, a colony of narcoleptic dogs and a teenager named Randy Gardner, who in 1964 claimed to have become the world's champion insomniac by going 11 days without sleep.
His research and advocacy helped awaken the medical establishment to the dangers of sleep deprivation, which Dement and his colleagues linked to fatal car crashes and ailments such as diabetes. He also spotlighted the cardiovascular risks of disorders such as sleep apnea, in which a sleeper's breathing is repeatedly interrupted.
"He was the father of sleep medicine. Everything started with Bill," said his Stanford colleague Emmanuel Mignot, an authority on narcolepsy.
Dement was 91 when he died June 17 at a hospital in Stanford, Calif. The cause was complications from a heart procedure, said his son, Nick Dement.
A passionate and even whimsical teacher and mentor, Dement was known for practicing what he preached, granting extra credit to students who nodded off in his undergraduate sleep class — then waking them up with a squirt gun and urging them to stand on their feet and declare, "Drowsiness is red alert!"
Dement wrote one of the first university textbooks on sleep; founded the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic, considered the first of hundreds of sleep labs around the country; and created the first major professional organization for sleep researchers, now known as the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.
He was also a founding editor of Sleep, a prominent academic journal, and created one of the first undergraduate courses on sleep, "Sleep and Dreams," teaching an estimated 20,000 students in the decades since its inception in 1971. Some 600 undergrads packed into Stanford Memorial Chapel that year, and Dement lectured from the pulpit before deciding that doing so "seemed a bit blasphemous."
"His joy of teaching, learning, and doing research was infectious," said Mary Carskadon, a psychiatry and human behavior professor at Brown University. She had previously worked with Dement at what is now the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center, leading a decade-long study that suggested that insufficient sleep could carry over from night to night in the form of "sleep debt."
While treating sleep as a public health problem, Dement became a leading proponent of the importance of getting a good night's sleep — generally six to eight hours, he said, with the length varying from person to person.
He was also a scholar of narcolepsy and sleep apnea at a time when few scientists focused on sleep disorders. In the 1980s, he promoted research suggesting that as much as 20% of the population was suffering from sleep apnea. "People were really thinking he was crazy," Mignot said, adding that later studies vindicated his views.
Dement appeared on "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson" and testified on sleep before Congress, helping to galvanize the creation of the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research in 1988. With Dement as chairman, the commission issued a report finding that 40 million Americans suffered from chronic sleep disorders, with up to 30 million more experiencing intermittent sleep problems. Bleary-eyed employees, the
commission estimated, resulted in $150 billion of reduced workplace productivity.
After the report was released in 1993, Congress created the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research.
William Charles Dement was born in Wenatchee, Wash., on July 29, 1928, and grew up in Walla Walla, where his father's family owned a flour mill.
Dement was training to become a psychiatrist when he became interested in sleep. Dement received his medical degree in 1955 and his Ph.D in neurophysiology in 1957, both at the University of Chicago.
After joining Stanford's psychiatry department in 1963, Dement launched the sleep clinic.
His wife of 58 years, the former Eleanor "Pat" Weber, was "the glue" that kept the Stanford sleep community together, said Nick Dement. She died in 2014.
In addition to Nick Dement, a physician in Phoenix, survivors include two daughters, Elizabeth Dement and Catherine Roos, both of Stanford. His six grandchildren include Nick's son Zaniel Zaiden Zooey Dement, whose initials — ZZZ — were selected in honor of Dement.