Students and faculty reflect on William Dement, father of sleep medicine, after his passing at 91

July 4, 2020, 10:17 a.m.

William C. Dement, hailed by many as the “father of sleep medicine,” peacefully passed away at the age of 91 on June 17. He died in his sleep in his Stanford home from cardiovascular disease.

Dement, founder of the Sleep Research Center at Stanford and a professor of psychiatry, was well-regarded as a leading authority on diagnosis and treatment of sleep disorders. Dement was a strong advocate for sleep education. He believed around 50,000 deaths occur per year due to sleep disorders or deprivation. 

At Stanford, he taught the first class of PSYC 135: “Sleep and Dreams” in 1971, a course now often enrolled to its maximum capacity each year. Over 20,000 students have taken the class since.

“I was a student of Dr. Dement’s at Stanford in 2001 and still consider ‘Sleep and Dreams’ to be one of the most memorable and informative classes I took in college,” said Elizabeth Van Alstine ’04 M.S. ’05 in an article by the American Academy of Sleep Medicine.

According to Alstine, Dement’s class and teachings indirectly saved her parents’ lives. 

“After I learned about the relationship between cardiac disease, sleep apnea, and obesity … both [of my parents were] diagnosed with sleep apnea and began using CPAP machines at night,” she wrote.

Landon Ellingson ’20, Dement’s former head TA for Sleep and Dreams, also discussed the impact the class had on his life. 

“It was the first class at Stanford that I felt directly impacted my life, as I had problems with my quality of sleep before entering the class,” wrote Ellingson in an email to The Daily. “The improved sleep that I experienced as a result of the class was paramount to me finding success at Stanford.” 

Ellingson described how students viewed Dement — as “a God-like figure on campus, and people who haven’t taken the class know who he is due to his highly-regarded reputation.”

Dr. Emmanuel Mignot, a professor of sleep medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine and a friend of Dement, spoke with The Daily about the personal impact Dement had left on him and on the world. 

“He was competitive and like every scientist, but he really looked at the big picture and tried to always kind of push things forward in a way that would benefit mankind,” Mignot said. “He has that kind of freedom that I really like about how he would express himself and try to engage people, and go beyond rules if needed.”

In the early 1970s, Dement was the first faculty member to become the residential fellow of Stanford’s Black theme dorm Ujamaa. Dement gave talks about sleep in the dorm, eventually attracting more students to his lectures and talks. 

According to Dr. Rafael Pelayo, clinical professor for psychiatry and behavioral sciences and long-time friend of Dement, Dement helped change the study of medicine. 

“He created his own medical specialty,” Pelayo told The Daily. “Dement is one of the greatest people I’ve ever met. Very kind, generous, humble, charming, funny, liked to have a good time, brilliant.”

“He exuded passion in everything he did and is one of the most dynamic, eccentric individuals that I know,” Ellingson said.

According to Ellingson, Dement’s class and research helped a lot of people, making them “more knowledgeable than some medical practitioners about sleep science.”

“The first wave of people [who] really established the sleep field is now gone, so it’s definitely the end of an era for sleep,” Mignot said.

According to Pelayo, Dement constantly inspired him and never stopped teaching him about the field of sleep medicine. 

“We lost a titan; he really wanted to keep going, he did not want to die, he never really stopped working … he never really retired,” Pelayo said.

The article has been corrected to reflect that Landon Ellingson was in the class of 2020, not 2021. The Daily regrets this error.

Contact Mariam Guirgis at mariamhany3 ‘at’

Mariam is a high schooler writing as part of The Daily’s Summer Journalism Workshop. She was also a part of the program in summer 2019.

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