The AASM regrets to announce the passing of our founding president, Dr. William C. Dement, on June 17, 2020. According to Stanford Medicine, he died at the age of 91 after a two-year battle with cardiovascular disease. A researcher, clinician, educator, advocate, mentor and friend to the entire sleep community and beyond, Dement is a luminary in the history of sleep medicine who helped build the sleep field with unrivaled passion, dedication and enthusiasm.
Dement’s lifetime of sleep discoveries began at the University of Chicago in the 1950s, where he joined physiologist Nathaniel Kleitman and graduate student Eugene Aserinsky, who discovered rapid eye movement (REM) sleep in 1953. In 1957 Dement and Kleitman described the human sleep cycle and its sleep stages in the landmark paper, “Cyclic variations in EEG during sleep and their relation to eye movements, body motility, and dreaming.” The discovery of REM sleep provided a physiologic basis for dreams, opening sleep up to scientific study, which was exemplified by Dement and Kleitman’s 1957 paper, “The relation of eye movements during sleep to dream activity: An objective method for the study of dreaming.” The groundbreaking research and use of polysomnography by Kleitman, Aserinsky, and Dement in the U.S., and by Michel Jouvet in France, laid the foundation for the fields of sleep and circadian science and clinical sleep medicine.
From Chicago, Dement went to New York, where he ran a sleep clinic out of a Manhattan apartment. It was there that he discovered that abnormal REM sleep was a symptom of narcolepsy, a finding that later led to his creation of the multiple sleep latency test (MSLT) as a standard diagnostic tool for narcolepsy. At Stanford University, where he spent the entirety of his career, Dement opened one of the world’s first sleep disorders clinics in 1970.
From running sleep studies in Stanford dorms to offering the school’s most popular class, “Sleep and Dreams,” Dement was dedicated to understanding sleep disorders, ensuring their recognition, and raising awareness of the importance of sleep. In 1975 he was instrumental in helping establish the Association of Sleep Disorder Centers, which would become the AASM, serving as president for the first 12 years. Under Dement’s leadership, the organization established the practice of sleep medicine through the development of standards for the evaluation and treatment of sleep disorders, standard diagnostic classifications, and an exam process for specialists in sleep medicine. The American Board of Sleep Medicine awarded him the first certificate in clinical polysomnography in 1978. Dement and his Stanford colleague, Dr. Christian Guilleminault, also became the founding editors of the journal Sleep, publishing the first issue in 1978.
“It is impossible to overstate the contributions that Dr. Dement made to the field of sleep medicine,” said AASM President Dr. Kannan Ramar. “Dr. Dement not only contributed groundbreaking research and practice experience, but as the founder and 12-year president of the organization that would become AASM, he laid the foundation for the sleep medicine community and all of the advances we have made, and will make in the future. He will be missed.”
In addition to laying the foundation for the AASM, Dement also played a pivotal role in establishing the Sleep Research Society. In 1961, he joined other early sleep scientists who gathered informally to share research abstracts and observations. The organization became the Association for the Psychophysiological Study of Sleep, later the SRS. In a “Conversations With Our Founders” video, produced to mark the 50th anniversary of the SRS, he reflected on his sleep research and efforts to bring attention to the value of sleep in health.
By the 1990s, Dement frequently found himself in Washington, D.C., leading the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research. The commission’s 1992 report, Wake Up America! A National Sleep Alert, drew attention to chronic sleep disorders, insufficient sleep, and sleepiness as major public health problems. In response, Congress created the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research within the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the National Institutes of Health to help fund and coordinate sleep research nationwide.
Honored with numerous accolades throughout his career, Dement was the inaugural recipient in 1994 of the AASM’s academic achievement award, which now bears his name. The William C. Dement Academic Achievement Award “embodies the pursuit of knowledge, a commitment to teaching and an unceasing quest to disseminate truth.” Dement also is a two-time recipient — in 1982 and 1987 — of the AASM’s Nathaniel Kleitman Distinguished Service Award, and in 1997 he received the AASM Mark O. Hatfield Public Policy or Advocacy Award. Dement worked hand-in-hand with Sen. Hatfield to introduce and pass the legislation that established the National Center on Sleep Disorders Research and increased NIH funding for sleep.
As an author, Dement wrote several influential books including Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep and The Promise of Sleep. He also co-authored the textbook, Dement’s Sleep and Dreams, based on his class at Stanford. In honor of his 80th birthday and 45th year of service to Stanford in 2008, the university produced a tribute video. More details about Dement’s contributions to the field of sleep medicine are available in, “History of the development of sleep medicine in the United States,” published in the inaugural issue of the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine.
The legacy of William “Bill” Dement, the “Father of Sleep Medicine,” is the sleep medicine subspecialty, the thousands of people who have dedicated their careers to improving health through better sleep, the countless lives saved through the diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders, and the recognition that “drowsiness is red alert.”
Watch these videos, lectures, and interviews to learn more from Dr. Dement about his extraordinary career in the fields of sleep medicine and sleep and circadian research.
Updated June 18, 2020