My Q and A With William Dement, a True Sleep Studies Pioneer

Dr. William C. Dement, a professor at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, is considered the father of sleep medicine. In answer to my questions, he spoke about his early interest in sleep studies, the scientists who inspired him and how the study of sleep has evolved over half a century. Here is a transcript of our conversation.

What led you to found the Stanford Sleep Disorders Clinic?

Before I came to Stanford, I was a research fellow at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City and worked with patients who had narcolepsy. After I went to Stanford, in 1963, I discovered that doctors were not recognizing this illness, so I put a little want ad in the San Francisco Chronicle asking people who had symptoms suggesting narcolepsy to contact me. I got about 100 responses, at least 50 of which were patients with undiagnosed narcolepsy. I started a narcolepsy clinic in 1964 to study and treat the illness, but I had to close it a year later as unpaid patient bills piled up.

It was gratifying to participate in patient care, so I had that lingering desire. When I first started researching, you could say all you had to do to get a grant from the National Institutes of Health was sneeze. But it had become quite difficult with peer review and everyone looking for a reason to reject a grant. I had a large staff and needed additional income to pay their salaries. I thought that a clinic would produce a major source of revenue, since I was aware of the high prevalence of complaints of insomnia among the population. I couldn’t have been more wrong! Insomniacs were not referred to our clinics by their physicians.

Anyway, in the early days of the Stanford —> Read More