Christian Guilleminault, researcher who coined ‘obstructive sleep apnea syndrome,’ dies at 80 | News Center

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Christian Guilleminault, MD, DM, DBiol, a sleep expert at the Stanford University School of Medicine who co-founded the journal Sleep, first described obstructive sleep apnea syndrome and helped establish the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center, died at Stanford Hospital July 9 with his wife, Priscilla Grevert, by his side. He was 80.

The cause was complications from metastatic prostate cancer.

Guilleminault helped expand Stanford’s sleep clinic into a full-service center now known as the Stanford Sleep Medicine Center. He was also a prolific researcher who co-authored more than 800 journal articles on narcolepsy, sleep apnea, sudden infant death syndrome, snoring and other mostly sleep-related topics. 

“He was just tireless,” said Clete Kushida, MD, PhD, professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford and a colleague of Guilleminault’s since 1994. “He would often be the first person to arrive at our labs, and he would be the last person to leave. He was always very interested in furthering sleep medicine and exploring sleep research.”

Lloyd Minor, MD, dean of the School of Medicine, said that Guilleminault played a critical role in the advancement of our knowledge about sleep.

“Through contributions as a clinician and scientist, Dr. Guilleminault helped pioneer the field of sleep medicine,” Minor said. “His transformative work will live on through the world-renowned Stanford Sleep Medicine Center, his innovative research and the many students and colleagues he mentored.”

Native of France 

Guilleminault was born in 1938 in Marseilles, France. He earned his MD at the University of Paris, and completed residencies in psychiatry and neurology in Paris and in Geneva. 

He came to Stanford in 1972 as a visiting assistant professor and became associate director of Stanford’s sleep clinic, which opened in 1964. It was the world’s first clinic to focus on narcolepsy. He joined the faculty in 1980 and became a tenured professor in 1994.

William Dement, MD, PhD, professor emeritus of psychiatry and behavioral sciences, said Guilleminault “changed the world.”

“We worked to make sleep-disorders medicine a legitimate clinical specialty, presented courses for practicing physicians, established reimbursement for sleep testing, and worked hard to bring narcolepsy and sleep apnea to the forefront of sleep medicine practice,” Dement said. “I feel extremely fortunate that he chose Stanford.”

Guilleminault became interested in sleep research after studying a kind of epilepsy that appears during sleep, according to Dement. Although Guilleminault studied narcolepsy, insomnia, the physiological and endocrinological changes that take place during sleep, and other sleep-related issues, much of his research focused on sleep apnea. 

He coined the term obstructive sleep apnea syndrome to describe episodes during sleep when the upper airway collapses, reducing blood oxygen levels and disrupting sleep. Guilleminault also recorded the condition in children, finding a correlation between sleep apnea and learning and attention disorders. He and Dement devised the apnea-hypopnea index, which is used to diagnose and rate the severity of the condition. 

 In 1977, Guilleminault and Dement founded the journal Sleep, the official publication of the Sleep Research Society. Guilleminault served as editor-in-chief until 1998. 

“We will dearly miss Dr. Christian Guilleminault,” said Laura Roberts, MD, professor and chair of psychiatry and behavioral sciences. “He was a giant in the field of sleep medicine, an inspiring colleague, a beloved mentor, an interdisciplinary scholar and a champion for patients whose suffering was immense but poorly understood.”  

‘He really listened’

Kushida said Guilleminault was “an excellent teacher” and “very good with patients. He really listened. You could just feel the intensity of him looking at you and studying you, trying to connect the dots.”

Kushida added that Guilleminault had a sharp wit, often joking that students would find themselves in a guillotine if they didn’t meet his expectations. A connoisseur of wine and cheese, he served both at informal lab parties. Dement remembers a meeting in Europe that the two of them attended: “We turned it into a great wine-tasting event.”

In addition tohis wife, who lives in San Francisco, Guilleminault is survived by two sons, Eric Guilleminault of Scottsdale, Arizona, and Damian Guilleminault of Paris, France. 

The family is planning a memorial service. Donations may be made in his honor to the American Sleep Apnea Association.

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