The Stubborn Scientist Who Unraveled A Mystery of the Night- page 7 | Science | Smithsonian
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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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From 1955 to 1957, Dement published studies with Kleitman establishing the correlation between REM sleep and dreaming. Dement went on to help organize the first sleep research society and started the world’s first sleep clinic at Stanford in 1970. With a collaborator, Howard Roffwarg, a psychiatrist now at the University of Mississippi Medical Center, Dement showed that even a 7-month-old premature infant experiences REM, suggesting that REM may occur in the womb. Dement’s colony of dogs with narcolepsy—a condition of uncontrollable sleep—shed light on the physiological basis of the disorder, which in people had long been attributed to psychological disturbances. Dement became such an evangelist about the dangers of undiagnosed sleep disorders that he once approached the managers of the rock band R.E.M., seeking to enlist the group for a fundraising concert. The musicians brushed him off with a shaggy story about the acronym standing for retired english majors.


When Aserinsky left the University of Chicago, in 1953, he turned his back on sleep research. He went to the University of Washington in Seattle and for a year studied the effects of electrical currents on salmon. Then he landed a faculty position at Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia, where he explored high-frequency brain waves and studied animal respiration. In 1957, his wife’s depression came to a tragic conclusion; while staying at a mental hospital in Pennsylvania, Sylvia committed suicide. Two years later, Aserinsky married Rita Roseman, a widow, and became stepfather to her young daughter, Iris; the couple remained together until Rita’s death in 1994.


In the early 1960s, Armond Aserinsky urged his father, then in his 40s, to return to the field he had helped start. Aserinsky finally wrote to Kleitman, who had retired from the University of Chicago. Kleitman replied, “It was good to learn that you have renewed work on rapid eye movements during sleep. The literature on the subject is quite extensive now. . . . I believe that you have ability and perseverance but have had . . . personal hard knocks to contend with. Let us hope that things will be better for you in the future.” Kleitman also took the opportunity to remind his former student that he still owed him a hundred dollars.


In March 1963, Aserinsky went home to Brooklyn to attend a meeting of sleep researchers. “People were shocked,” his son recalled. “They looked at him and said, ‘My God, you’re Aserinsky! We thought you were dead!’ ”


Delving into the night again in an unused operating room at the Eastern Pennsylvania Psychiatric Institute in Philadelphia, Aserinsky worked on the physiology of REM and non-REM sleep, but he had prickly encounters with colleagues. He took offense when he did not receive an invitation to a prestigious dinner at a 1972 meeting of sleep researchers. He was often stung when Dement and Kleitman got credit he felt belonged to him. (For his part, Dement said he resented that Aserinsky never acknowledged all the work he did as low man on the lab totem pole. “I was so naive,” he told me.) In 1976, after more than two decades at JeffersonMedicalCollege, Aserinsky was passed over for the chairmanship of the physiology department. He left, becoming chairman of physiology at MarshallUniversity in Huntington, West Virginia. He retired in 1987. “He could be a deeply suspicious and impolitic person,” Armond Aserinsky said.


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