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'The Father Of Sleep Science' Dr. William Dement Dies At 91

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

On Friday, the California Sleep Society will hold an online memorial for a man called the father of sleep medicine.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Dr. William Dement died last week after a heart procedure. He was 91. He was a pioneer in understanding that sleeping is far from a passive state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM DEMENT: The sleeping brain shuts out perception of the outer world. You can run and talk and do things while you're asleep, but you don't perceive the outer world.

MCCAMMON: Dr. Dement began his work as a medical researcher in the 1950s. Back then, it was thought that sleep was a dull topic - you know, nothing to see here. But that proved untrue, as he told this program in 1999.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEMENT: Your brains create a world, the dream world, which many of us feel is essentially another reality. It is as complex as the real world, and it does it without the aid of sensory input.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Dement coined the term REM sleep for rapid eye movement, the stage in which most dreams happen. He liked the term because he was a two-fingered typer (ph) and didn't want to write out the whole phrase.

MCCAMMON: Colleagues called William Dement a visionary.

RAFAEL PELAYO: He created his own medical specialty. He challenged the status quo and made the world a better place.

MCCAMMON: That's Dr. Rafael Pelayo, a clinical professor in sleep medicine at Stanford. He had worked closely with Dr. Dement since 1993. They were close friends.

PELAYO: There's very few people on the planet that have not been touched by his work. Anybody who's doing any work related to being alert, (unintelligible), knowledge of dreaming - anybody who's ever been curious about dreaming.

SHAPIRO: When he was young, Dr. Dement was a professional jazz bass player. He helped establish the Stanford Jazz Workshop.

PELAYO: Sleep and music were just everything to Bill Dement.

(SOUNDBITE OF REM SONG, "LOSING MY RELIGION")

SHAPIRO: And in case you wondered, when a rock band adopted REM as its name, Dement was not only aware of that. He posted a photo of the band at his lectures.

PELAYO: And he said that he wanted to reach out to them. And he tried reaching out to them, and they said that they were named not after REM sleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LOSING MY RELIGION")

REM: (Singing) That's me in the spotlight, losing my religion.

MCCAMMON: Sleep was a serious thing to William Dement. He believed we all needed sleep to function, and he dismissed people who claimed they got by with little or no sleep.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DEMENT: I wasted an awful lot of time energy and money in the early days when I was naive. Someone would claim, I only need three hours of sleep a night. And I'd say, oh, we'll study them. Then we'd study them, and they'd sleep eight hours, or they'd sleep seven. I mean, I never studied anyone where their claim was valid.

SHAPIRO: Playfulness was part of Dr. Dement's character. He set aside a specific sleeping section in his classes knowing some students would doze off during his lectures. But those who nodded off outside the sleep zone got spritzed with a squirt gun.

MCCAMMON: His family also shared his prankster sense of humor. One of his six grandchildren is named Zaniel Zaiden Zooey Dement - ZZZ.

SHAPIRO: And an answer to another question about the death of Dr. William Dement, here's his friend Dr. Pelayo.

PELAYO: Bill Dement died in his sleep.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Sleep died June 17 at the age of 91.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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