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William Dement (1928–2020), sleep doctor who coined the term “REM”

by Linnea Crowther

Dr. William Dement was a scientist who developed the field of sleep research and coined the term “REM,” or rapid eye movement, to describe the stage of sleep when dreaming takes place.

The father of sleep medicine

When Dement began researching sleep in the 1950s, it was not well understood, and few scientists gave it much thought. But Dement’s groundbreaking research showed just how important sleep is and how drastically we can be affected by drowsiness as we’re driving, working, or studying. A leading advocate for our need for six to eight hours of sleep a night, Dement testified before Congress about the importance of sleep and helped jumpstart the creation of the National Commission on Sleep Disorders Research.

Dement studied chronic sleep disorders including narcolepsy and sleep apnea, and he was ahead of the curve in understanding just how common and dangerous sleep apnea can be. A founder of the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic, the first sleep lab in the U.S., Dement was also a professor at Stanford University, where he taught the popular “Sleep and Dreams” course for decades. If a student dozed off in class, Dement gave them extra credit – then squirted them with a water gun.

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Dement on how much sleep you should get

“I think [six to eight hours of sleep] is a reasonable figure. I think, however, what I advise is every single person should try to determine their own unique sleep requirement. And again, you do that by sleeping a certain amount or being in bed a certain amount of time, and then seeing how you function during the day. If you eat lunch and then you can hardly stay awake, there’s a problem.” —from a 2017 interview with NPR’s “Here and Now”

What people said about him

Full obituary: The Washington Post

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