Their inability to find the cause of death, they added, “is why the function of sleep has itself been such a tough nut to crack.”
Allan Rechtschaffen was born on Dec. 8, 1927, in Manhattan and moved to the Bronx when he was young. His parents were Jewish immigrants from the Galicia province of what was then the Austro-Hungarian empire. His father, Philip, a tailor, was from Kalusz, now in Ukraine; his mother, Sylvia (Jaeger) Rechtshaffen, a homemaker, came from Bolechow, also in Ukraine.
Early on, Allan was smitten by journalism, first at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he worked on its student newspaper, and then at City College of New York, where he initially studied it. But he later switched to psychology, earning three degrees in the subject: bachelor’s and master’s from C.C.N.Y. in 1949 and 1951 and a Ph.D. from Northwestern University in 1956.
He went on to teach psychology at Northwestern and was a research psychologist at the Veterans Administration (now the Department of Veterans Affairs) in Chicago before being hired by the University of Chicago in 1957.
Professor Rechtschaffen began his sleep research in the same laboratory space, in a decrepit building, that had been used by Dr. Kleitman, the discoverer of REM. (Dr. Kleitman’s only advice to him was to “clean up in the morning.”) He later expanded the laboratory and conducted research there on humans, rats, cats, alligators and turtles. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals sometimes protested his experiments by calling his house in the middle of the night, Ms. Rechtschaffen said.
One day in the 1960s he had a dream in which someone he knew looked different to him than that person did during his wakeful state. It prompted him to launch a study to see if dream images are determined by stimulating the retina. Three volunteers were brought into his lab, where their pupils were dilated and their eyes taped open.
When the subjects were asleep — and being monitored by electroencephalograms and eye movement recordings — Professor Rechtschaffen sneaked into the room and put various images before their taped-open eyes. When they awoke, they recounted their dreams but did not report seeing any of the displayed images in them.