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The Stubborn Scientist Who Unraveled A Mystery of the Night

Fifty years ago, Eugene Aserinksy discovered rapid eye movement and changed the way we think about sleep and dreaming

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At the time, few scientists were interested in the subject. Despite research on the electrical activity of the brain in the late 1920s, the understanding of sleep hadn’t advanced much beyond the ancient Greeks, who viewed Hypnos, the god of sleep, as the brother of Thanatos, the god of death. Sleep was what happened when you turned out the lights and stopped the influx of sensation. Sleep was what the brain lapsed into, not what it actively constructed. On the face of it, dull stuff.


Kleitman was intrigued nonetheless, and began to explore the physiology of the body’s basic rest-activity cycle. A painstaking researcher, he once stayed up 180 hours straight to appraise the effects of sleep deprivation on himself. In 1938, he and fellow researcher Bruce Richardson moved into MammothCave in Kentucky for more than a month to study fluctuations in their body temperatures and other darkness-engendered changes in their normal sleep-wake cycle—pioneering work in the now booming field of circadian rhythm research. Kleitman backed his fieldwork with formidable scholarship. When he published his landmark book Sleep and Wakefulness in 1939, he apologized for being unable to read in any language other than Russian, English, German, French and Italian.


At the office door, Aserinsky found a man with “a grey head, a grey complexion and a grey smock.” As the younger scientist wrote years later, “there was no joy in this initial encounter for either of us. For my part I recognized Kleitman as the most distinguished sleep researcher in the world. Unfortunately sleep was perhaps the least desirable of the scientific areas I wished to pursue.”


Aserinsky had grown up in Brooklyn in a Yiddish- and Russian-speaking household. His mother died when he was 12, and he was left in the care of his father, Boris, a dentist who loved to gamble. Boris often had his son sit in on pinochle hands if the table was a player short. Meals were catch as catch can. Aserinsky’s son, Armond, recalled: “Dad once told me he said to his father, ‘Pop, I’m hungry,’ and his father said, ‘I’m not hungry, how can you be hungry?’ ” Eugene graduated from public high school at the age of 16 and for the next 12 years knocked about in search of his métier. At Brooklyn College, he took courses in social science, Spanish and premedical studies but never received a degree. He enrolled at the University of Maryland dental school only to discover that he hated teeth. He kept the books for an ice company in Baltimore. He served as a social worker in the Maryland state employment office. Though he was legally blind in his right eye, he did a stint in the U.S. Army as a high explosives handler.


By 1949, Aserinsky, married and with a 6-year-old son, was looking to take advantage of the G.I. Bill of Rights to launch a science career. He aced the entrance exams at the University of Chicago and, though he lacked an undergraduate degree, persuaded the admissions office to accept him as a graduate student. “My father was courtly, intelligent and intensely driven,” says Armond Aserinsky, 60, now a clinical psychologist in North Wales, Pennsylvania. “He could be extremely charming, and he had a fine scientific mind, but he had all kinds of conflicts with authority. He always wore black suits. I once asked him, ‘Dad, how come you never wear a sports jacket?’ He looked at me and said, ‘I’m not a sport.’ ”


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