Rechtschaffen looking into the camera in black and white photo
Black and white photo of Rechtschaffen looking at the camera

Pioneering Sleep Researcher Allan Rechtschaffen Dies at 93

Rechtschaffen sought to understand the evolutionary purpose of shut-eye.

Lisa Winter
Lisa Winter

Lisa Winter became social media editor for The Scientist in 2017. In addition to her duties on social media platforms, she also pens obituaries for the website. She graduated from Arizona State University, where she studied genetics, cell, and developmental biology.

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Dec 22, 2021

ABOVE: Rechtschaffen family/ University of Chicago

Allan Rechtschaffen, who was central to the development of sleep research as a scientific discipline, died on November 29 at the age of 93. He is best known for his work probing the function of sleep, including some of the first research detailing the severe health consequences of sleep deprivation.

Born December 8, 1927 in Manhattan, Rechtschaffen grew up in the Bronx, The New York Times reports. His father was a tailor, while his mother cared for Rechtschaffen and his siblings. He graduated from the City College of New York in 1949 with a degree in psychology, staying on to earn his master’s in 1951. He obtained a PhD from Northwestern University in 1956, then taught psychology there and performed research with the Veterans Administration (now known as the Department of Veterans Affairs) for a year after graduating.

Rechtschaffen took on a faculty position at the University of Chicago in 1957, where he stayed until retiring as a professor emeritus 44 years later, the university reports in an obituary. He worked alongside Nathaniel Kleitman, who had discovered the existence of rapid eye movements (REM) during sleep. This fascinated Rechtschaffen, who dedicated his career to understanding the reasons why sleep, which takes up a significant portion of the day, exists. Soon after coming to the university, Rechtschaffen became director of the sleep laboratory.

According to multiple outlets, Rechtschaffen often quipped that “if sleep does not serve an absolutely vital function, then it is the biggest mistake the evolutionary process has ever made.”

In 1961, Rechtschaffen and a few of his colleagues formed an informal association to discuss developments in their field. In the next few years, it took on more of a structure, and was eventually named the Association for the Psychophysiological Study of Sleep. The association changed its name about 20 years later to better reflect the scope of the organization, and the Sleep Research Society is the moniker still used today, according to its website.

Rechtschaffen collaborated with Anthony Kales, then at the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1968 to create a standardized way to collect data during the different stages of sleep. These guidelines, commonly referred to simply as R&K, are still in use for sleep studies.

According to the Times, Rechtschaffen had a reputation as a workaholic. He married his wife Karen in 1980, and couple became well known for their extravagant Halloween and Christmas parties.

Rechtschaffen published his most famous study in Science in 1983 where he demonstrated the necessity of sleep for survival. One group of lab rats was prevented from sleeping, while a control group was not restricted. The sleep-deprived rats rapidly grew unhealthy, losing weight even though they were overeating. Within two weeks, the rats’ body temperatures fell rapidly, and they died. While the effects of not sleeping were clear, the mechanisms behind the problems still aren’t entirely understood. UChicago News reports that Rechtschaffen told his wife he regretted retiring when he did in 2001, as there remained fundamental questions about the purpose of sleep that he hadn’t solved.

Rechtschaffen is survived by his wife, three daughters, and four grandchildren.

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