Dr. 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 Dr. 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. For years, he added in a phone interview, Dr. Dement “was a voice in the wilderness, trying to draw attention to sleep issues at a time when it wasn’t taken too seriously.”
Dr. 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, Dr. 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!”
The mantra served as a reminder that drowsiness could be deadly, especially on the road, and became a kind of motto for Dr. Dement. A onetime professional bassist, he was said to have turned from jazz to medicine after deciding that it was better to be a mediocre doctor than a mediocre musician. He went on to champion the creation of a jazz program at Stanford while notching a series of firsts in the field of sleep science.
Dr. 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 Dr. 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 A. Carskadon, a psychiatry and human behavior professor at Brown University. She had previously worked with Dr. Dement at what is now the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center, leading a decade-long study that suggested that insufficient sleep…
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