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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

Narrating his version of events in the Journal of the History of the Neurosciences, Aserinsky criticized Dement’s contention that the discovery of REM was a “team effort,” saying, “If anything is characteristic about the REM discovery, it was that there was no teamwork at all. In the first place, Kleitman was reserved, almost reclusive, and had little contact with me. Secondly, I myself am extremely stubborn and have never taken kindly to working with others. This negative virtue carried on throughout my career as evidenced by my resume, which reveals that I was either the sole or senior author in my first thirty publications, encompassing a period of twenty-five years.” That stubbornness spilled into his family relations as well. Years passed in which he had no contact with Armond.

 

To younger sleep scientists, Aserinsky was only a name on a famous paper, an abstraction from another time. And such he might have remained if not for a license plate and a chance encounter in 1989.

 

Peter Shiromani, then an assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of California at San Diego, had just nosed his Datsun 310 into the parking lot of a Target department store in Encinitas, California. His custom license plates advertised what had been his scientific obsession since his undergraduate days at CityCollege in New York City: REM SLEP.

 

“A woman walked up to me and said, ‘I really love your plates! Did you know my father discovered REM sleep?’ ” Shiromani recalled. “I said, ‘You must be Eugene Aserinsky’s daughter!’ She was very pleased. I think she felt a lot of pride in her father’s accomplishment, and here was someone who recognized her father’s name. We chatted briefly with much enthusiasm about REM sleep. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to ask for her father’s address.”

 

Shiromani passed the address along to Jerry Siegel, a sleep researcher at UCLA and the Sepulveda Veterans Affairs medical center in suburban Los Angeles, who invited Aserinsky to address the June 1995 meeting of the Associated Professional Sleep Societies in Nashville. Siegel was organizing a symposium in honor of Kleitman, who had recently turned 100. “It was very difficult to get Aserinsky to come,” Siegel recalls. “People who knew him in the early days said, ‘Don’t invite him.’ But my dealings with him were very pleasant.”

 

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