Bill Dement, the “Father of Sleep Medicine,” died on June 17, 2020.
By Rafael Pelayo, MD
If you have ever earned a living in the sleep field, been treated for a sleep disorder; studied psychology, medicine, or public health; trusted a pilot to fly you; driven behind a truck; slept in a hotel; or have simply been curious about your dreams, your life was touched by Dr William “Bill” C. Dement.
Irrefutably, all of our lives have been made better thanks to him. This is why he is known as the “Father of Sleep Medicine.” He died too young at the age of 91 after a heart procedure on June 17, 2019. Bill had expected to live past 100 years. He was always quick to point out that his mentor, Nathaniel Kleitman, lived to be past 100 years, as did Dement’s own mother.
As a university student in Puerto Rico, when I first read about Dr Dement, he was the best-known sleep expert on the planet. Years later, I traveled from the Bronx for a Stanford fellowship interview. I figured I was unlikely to get the position, but the trip would be worth the distance just to meet the fabled doctor. As I sat awestruck in his office, Bill burst in and announced, “Any friend of Michael Thorpy’s is a friend of mine!” (Thank you, Michael). I could never have imagined then that Bill would eventually become one of my best friends.
Bill was laughed at and insulted many times in the early days of promoting the sleep science, but he knew the truth was on his side. He used his wit and intelligence to brilliantly succeed. For those who heard him lecture, he inspired audiences to work harder. Once, he invited me to co-author a paper on insomnia. I poured everything I knew into the first draft, only for him to kick it back. He said, “You wrote how to take a care of a person with insomnia, but how do you take care of a population of insomniacs?”1 He lifted my vision and that of many others to think about the importance of sleep for the greater good of society.
Our friendship started with sleep medicine, but it grew stronger through music. Bill was an avid musician and would often perform at sleep conferences, accompanied on the drums by Roy Felts, Sleep Review’s publisher, along with Ron Richard and other musicians from the sleep community. When Bill’s arthritis prevented him from playing his bass, he would still sing for us. When we taught class together at Stanford, Bill would break out confidentially into a song with minimal prompting. I never minded driving with Bill because it meant more opportunity to listen to music with him. The years would melt away from his face when he sang in the car.
During his last hospitalization, I brought Bill my most comfortable headphones and he listened to music every day until the end. Bill Dement died knowing that he changed the world and that he was loved by his family, who were at his side when he passed.
Rafael Pelayo, MD, is a clinical professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the Stanford Center for Sleep Sciences and Medicine, and a longtime colleague and friend of Bill Dement.
- Dement WC, Pelayo R. Public health impact and treatment of insomnia. European Psychiatry. 1997;12(suppl_1): 31-9.
Additional biographical details of Bill Dement’s extraordinary life are available at the following links:
- William C. Dement, MD, PhD, Father of Sleep Medicine, Dies (Sleep Review)
- William Dement, Giant in Sleep Medicine, Dies at 91 (Stanford Medicine News Center)
- In Memoriam: Sleep Pioneer Dr. William C. Dement (Sleep Research Society)
- In Memoriam: Sleep Pioneer and AASM Founding President Dr. William C. Dement (American Academy of Sleep Medicine)
- Dr. William Dement, Leader in Sleep Disorder Research, Dies at 91 (New York Times)
- William Dement, Known as ‘the Father of Sleep Medicine,’ Dies at 91 (Washington Post)
- ‘The Father Of Sleep Science’ Dr. William Dement Dies At 91 (NPR)
- William C. Dement (1928–2020) (Science)
- Students and Faculty Reflect on William Dement, Father of Sleep Medicine, After His Passing at 91 (Stanford Daily)
Top photo: Sleep specialists William C. Dement, MD, PhD (right) and Rafael Pelayo, MD were longtime colleagues and friends.