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Stanford Report, March 19, 2003

Sleep legend Dement keeps last class wide awake ‘Father of Sleep Medicine’ took his research from the lab to the classroom to TV and beyond


If you’ve ever met William Dement, chances are good that you’ve heard the phrase, "Drowsiness is red alert." Thousands of Stanford students and alumni are familiar with Dement’s catchphrase — designed to remind people of the dangers of sleep deprivation — and a large group recently belted out those words with Dement one last time.

Dement, MD, PhD, the Lowell W. and Josephine Q. Berry Professor of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, delivered the last lecture of his popular undergraduate course, "Sleep and Dreams," March 12. More than 1,000 people, including many of Dement’s friends and former students, piled into Memorial Auditorium for the class, which is typically one of the university’s largest. This quarter, more than 900 undergrads were enrolled; over 15,000 have taken the course since its inception.

William Dement has instructed an estimated 15,000 students over the years in his course "Sleep and Dreams." His final class featured members of the Stanford Band playing in their pajamas and a gift to students: no final exam. Photo: Michelle L. Brandt

Dement started teaching the course 33 years ago, 19 years after working in the lab where rapid eye movement, or REM, the stage of sleep where dreaming occurs, was first discovered at the University of Chicago. Dement has spent 50 years studying and teaching the basic and clinical aspects of sleep — earning him the nickname of "Father of Sleep Medicine."

"I was lucky to be able to take a course from someone who pioneered the field," said Clete Kushida, MD, PhD, an assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the medical school who took "Sleep and Dreams" in 1978 and now directs the Stanford Center for Human Sleep Research. "I hadn’t decided what area I wanted to go into when I took the course, but Dement’s enthusiasm and interest were contagious."

Kushida said Dement has a gift of being able to present the topic of sleep in a fun and relevant way, and he doubts former students will ever forget the class. Kushida was one of the attendees of last week’s lecture, which felt more like a party than a class.

Dement joined some of his students for a quick fountain dip after his unorthodox last class. Photo: Michelle L. Brandt

Early in the afternoon, after announcing that the final exam had been cancelled, Dement took the stage, leading a deafening cheer of his famous catchphrase. He went on to show some videos, including his 1974 appearance on "The Johnny Carson Show" and another of U.S. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle saying Dement’s slogan. Pajama-clad members of the Stanford Band ran on stage and danced with Dement before he said his final good-bye ("Tick-tock, we’ve come to the final moment," he sighed) and thank-yous.

Dement said earlier in the day that there is no single reason for his decision to stop teaching ("I’ve got to quit some time," he noted), although the 50th anniversary of the observation of REM "seemed like a good time."

Despite his retirement from teaching undergraduates, Dement will continue conducting research and outreach programs and promoting sleep issues in the public policy arena. He said sleep debt contributes to 50,000 deaths a year in the United States and his hope is that people will recognize its dangers and start taking naps when they’re sleepy.

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