Pioneering sleep researcher Rosalind Dymond Cartwright, ‘Queen of Dreams,’ dead at 98

Her groundbreaking research concluded dreaming is important for mental health because it helps people organize thoughts and deal with worries and emotions.

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Rosalind Cartwright in her dream research lab.

Rosalind Cartwright in her dream research lab.

Sun-Times file

Rosalind Dymond Cartwright, whose groundbreaking research on sleep prompted other scientists to crown her “the Queen of Dreams,” once said her remarkable career was inspired by conversations heard at the family dinner table growing up.

“Well, my mother was a big dreamer, and she loved to tell her dreams at the dinner table and intrigue us all with decoding the images, and she used her dream images very much in her poetry,” she said for a Sleep Research Society oral history. “And my father would sit there and shake his head in wonder and say, ‘Stella, you have such an interesting nightlife!’ ”

Ms. Cartwright, one of the first women in the world in the field of sleep research, died of a heart attack last month at her Lake Shore Drive home at 98, according to her daughter Carolyn.

In a 50-year career, she overcame preferential treatment for male scholars and sleep medicine’s early tendency to prescribe sleeping pills rather than study the reasons behind insomnia. 

Working at various times at the University of Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago and Rush University Medical Center, she studied dreaming, circadian rhythms and sleep apnea and wrote four books and hundreds of academic papers.

Sleep researcher Rosalind Cartwright.

Sleep researcher Rosalind Cartwright.

Sun Times file

“She was such a mentor and role model and inspiration,” said Dr. Katherine Sharkey, an associate professor of medicine at Brown University who conducted the oral history in 2010. “She was brilliant and tenacious.”

Ms. Cartwright is credited with groundbreaking research that concluded dreaming, outlined in her book “The Twenty-Four Hour Mind: The Role of Sleep and Dreaming in Our Emotional Lives,” is important for mental health because it helps people organize thoughts and deal with worries and emotions.

“This sort of processing of information is our regular night-shift work,” she told The New York Times in 1977.

Her studies on people going through divorce suggested you could tell which stage of coping they were in by their dreams, said James K. Wyatt, a Rush psychiatry professor.

In 1962, while director of psychology at the University of Illinois Medical College, she took over an abandoned men’s bathroom to establish a sleep study lab. But the retrofitting sealed out noise so completely that some of her test subjects couldn’t stand the quiet.

“They were Chicago people, and they missed the buses and the fire engines and all of that noise,” she told Sharkey.

She wound up having to pipe in street noise.

She also had to deal with the hurdle of 1960s hairstyles. She wanted to study women and their sleep habits but couldn’t get them into the lab, she said in the interview: “They wore beehive hairdos that were all sprayed. They didn’t want to destroy their hairdos.”

Ms. Cartwright used to gently probe the psyche of her subjects with the same question: “What was going through your mind just before I woke you?” 

She saw treatment for sleep apnea evolve with sophisticated oral appliances and computerized CPAP devices. Still, some of the more primitive, early treatments could be effective, she said. One involved $10 T-shirts sewn by a Ukrainian Village seamstress that featured a pocket with a tennis ball inside to keep people from sleeping on their backs.

Born Rosalind Falk in New York City, she grew up in Toronto. Her parents were lovers of poetry. Her mother Stella was a published poet. Her father Henry was a classically trained Shakespearean actor who became a real estate developer who’d commission poems and embed the passages on tablets in some of his buildings, according to Carolyn Cartwright.

“Dr. Roz” recalled that her family had a coal stove that warmed their Toronto living room but left the bedrooms icy.

“So they’d be under their Hudson Bay blankets and warm their pajamas on the fireplace screen and then race off to bed and under the blankets,” said Adam Gerace, a senior psychology lecturer at Australia’s Central Queensland University. 

After getting her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology at the University of Toronto, she got her doctorate in 1949 in psychology from Cornell University. She taught at Mount Holyoke College before joining the University of Chicago, where she focused on the study of empathy under Carl Rogers, the influential psychotherapist.

Her work “changed my life and way of thinking,” Gerace said. “She wrote in 1950 that [empathy] was ‘the imaginative transposing of oneself into the thinking, feeling and acting of another.’ Even now, some 70 years later, we often don’t think of empathy that way — that is, while lots of research today considers whether some people are more empathic than others or what may lead to an empathic emotional response, what it doesn’t look at is what empathy involves, that is what we are actually doing when we are trying to apprehend another’s perspective.”

In 1977, Wyatt said, Ms. Cartwright joined Rush and helped establish the first accredited sleep disorder center in Illinois. In more than three decades there, she rose to chair Rush’s behavioral sciences division.

Rosalind D. Cartwright, sleep researcher.

Rosalind D. Cartwright.

Rush University Medical Center

Ms. Cartwright told Sharkey she found satisfaction in researching solutions for sleep apnea, partly because her work helped couples resume co-sleeping after years of nocturnal separation due to snoring. Thanks to treatment, one woman told her “they snuggle every night, and it was just so sweet,” she said.

She testified for the defense in some court cases in which she believed people were wrongfully held responsible for crimes — including murder — committed while sleepwalking. She never accepted payment for that, said Peter Zeldow, a psychologist and former colleague.

Around the centennial of the publication of Sigmund Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams,” Ms. Cartwright wrote a review of the seminal book.

“I was impressed by the audacity and playfulness of writing a book review on something 100 years old,” said Toronto psychologist Brent Willock, author of “The Wrongful Conviction of Oscar Pistorius,” which examined whether the South African Olympic sprinter might have been in a state of parasomnia — a sleep disorder — when he killed his girlfriend.

Ms. Cartwright loved driving fast sports cars. And before anyone used the term “team-building,” she regularly took her staff to Greektown to treat them to flaming saganaki. 

She enjoyed the zippy repartee in classic Hollywood films and movies with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Toward the end of her life, she delighted in her new digital assistant Alexa, regularly instructing, “Alexa, play Fred Astaire songs.”

Ms. Cartwright married four times — twice to the same man. Richard P. Dennis, president of the Great Books Foundation, was “the great love of her life,” her daughter said. They divorced but reconnected a few years later and remarried. He died in 1996.

Her daughter Christine Cartwright, a folklore expert, was struck and killed by a car in New Jersey in 1983.

A celebration of Ms. Cartwright’s life is planned later this year. In addition to her daughter Carolyn L. Cartwright, survivors include stepdaughter Amy Russell and her grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

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