Rosalind Cartwright’s passing away on January 15, 2021 has led to a number of remembrances that describe the career of a remarkable clinical sleep scientist who gained the fond moniker of the “grandmother of sleep medicine.” Rather than list her many achievements, which can be found in many of them,1,2 I’d like instead to honor her life by describing her qualities as a person, gleaned from writing each other weekly for two decades.
Though I had heard Roz speak any number of times since the early 1970s, I came to know her first at a meeting on dreams that Dick Bootzin (who we lost in 2017) held in Tucson in 1989. I was working on the observation that some insomniacs could show all the behavioral and EEG indications of being in NREM sleep, but when questioned by an investigator reported that they had been awake.3 Roz, who had given a talk on “a network model of dreams,” was of course interested in mentation during sleep and approached me to discuss it. We ended up spending most of the meeting talking and getting to know each other. I remember at one point we wandered into a gift shop, and among the Arizona mementos were some geodes, small spherical volcanic rocks, plain-looking on the outside but filled with beautiful crystals within. I think the symbolism appealed to her, and she kept talking about them later. As it happens, I had collected geodes many years ago and sent her one. A friendship was born.
When I moved to the University of Chicago in 1996, Roz did her best to make me feel at home. Although most of us associate her with Rush University, where she was director of psychology from the 1970s until her retirement, she had spent a decade at the University of Chicago, working with Carl Rogers on evaluating his client-centered psychotherapy.
She was high-spirited and exploratory in those years and shared stories of some of her misadventures in Hyde Park. One of her favorites was the time she and another female faculty friend went to a dubious local club with the innocent intent of hearing the live jazz but were momentarily and hilariously mistaken for persons of a different profession.
But I mention her years studying psychotherapy for a reason: While we know her for her careful clinical studies of dreams, parasomnias, and many other topics, she was also a devoted psychotherapist carrying on her trade, which influenced her sleep work. It is not a coincidence, I think, the notion that dreams are important in emotional regulation came from two people grounded in psychotherapy (Roz) and psychoanalysis (Ernie Hartmann). As Roz developed her thesis that the progression of affect in dreams across the night reflected a process of healing from trauma, and that interventions could facilitate that process, you could feel the therapist at work.
Her caring for her patients came across as well in her studies of parasomnias. While her studies of people who she believed had been unjustly sent to prison for acts committed during parasomnias were well known, and sometimes a little contentious, beneath them was a real sense of outrage at injustice and a caring which she continued to express long into retirement.
In the 2000s, Roz and I found ourselves finding how to manage in new situations, in my case after having stepped down from the U. of C. for health reasons, and for her after retiring from Rush. We were both writers, so it was probably a natural movement from the phone to email, and we began writing once or twice a week. Her letters had an engaging style, often tinged with gentle teasing. I remember once she asked me about a gift for her grandson, Max, then perhaps 8 or 9. I suggested my childhood favorite—a kit to build a working steam engine. I even tracked down where she could buy it, only to be told that I was showing my age: these days any self-respecting kid would want a model of a nuclear reactor or something along those lines. In later years, as health problems came up, she often dealt with them with humor. Once when we both had some difficulties, I remember her comment that “we’re in synch as we sink.”
We talked a lot about her writing, dealing with ornery publishers, and debated the wording of book titles. In the last few years, in her mid-90s, she continued with her efforts to produce a second edition of The 24 Hour Mind, while essentially blind in one eye and barely able to read with the other. While sometimes it manifest itself by terrorizing the Geek Squad (and occasionally me) when the computer malfunctioned, the dedication with which she continued to work, long past the stage at which others would have quit, will be a lasting memory.
Roz came from a family of artists and poets. Family traditions, such as making and distributing Christmas cakes from her mother’s secret recipe, were important to her. Her plan for her next book was to be the story of her and her two sisters growing up: one beautiful and glamorous, one naughty, and one studious and brainy (I leave it to your imagination as to which one she was). Sadly, that tale will now never be written. Though we all know how the story ends—with a scholar who inspired generations of students and who was instrumental in founding our field—I regret not knowing more about its beginning. Once a week when it comes time to write what we came to know as our “Sunday morning letters,” I still feel the urge to tell her what I’ve been up to, and learn what she’s been thinking.
Wallace B. Mendelson, MD, is a retired professor of psychiatry and clinical pharmacology at the University of Chicago, former director of the Sleep Research Laboratory at the University of Chicago, past president of the Sleep Research Society, and a longtime friend of Roz Cartwright.
- Sleep Research Society: SRS mourns the loss of Rosalind Cartwright. https://www.sleepresearchsociety.org/srs-mourns-the-loss-of-rosalind-cartwright
- American Academy of Sleep Medicine: In memoriam: Sleep and dreams pioneer Rosalind Cartwright PhD. 21 Jan 20.
- Mendelson WB. Insomnia: the patient and the pill. In: Sleep and Cognition (Bootzin RR, Kihlstrom JF, Schacter DL, eds). 1990;Washington, DC, American Psychological Association:139-47.