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The Boston Globe

Obituaries

Dr. Ernest Hartmann, researched sleep, the nature of dreaming; at 79

Dr. Hartmann spent decades contemplating what dreams and nightmares can reveal.

Janet Knott/Globe Staff/File 1999

Dr. Hartmann spent decades contemplating what dreams and nightmares can reveal.

Though Ernest Hartmann didn’t know “The Nature and Functions of Dreaming” would be the last book he published in his lifetime, there was almost a valedictory feel to the way he addressed readers in it.

“I have been fascinated by dreams for many years (for almost my entire life in fact); my own dreams, my patients’ dreams, and the biology and psychology of dreaming,” he began the first chapter.

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An internationally known researcher, Dr. Hartmann wrote and thought as much or more about dreams than anyone else in the past half century. He explored the sleep cycle and how medications affect it. He also delved deeply into nightmares and used dreams to study a variety of boundaries in each person’s life, including the sometimes thin borders among waking, daydreaming, and sleeping.

The remains of today and days past, all the faces and places encountered along the way, can join hands in the minds of dreamers, he believed. “First of all, dreaming connects,” he wrote in a 1996 scientific paper. He added that “even those who believe dreaming throws things together in a more or less random fashion must admit that a dream image somehow connects material in our memories, imaginations.”

Dr. Hartmann, who directed the Sleep Disorders Center at Newton-Wellesley Hospital and was the first editor of the journal Dreaming, died, apparently heart failure, Aug. 7 while riding his bicycle from his vacation home in Truro to buy newspapers, a favorite routine he couldn’t set aside even though he had undergone surgery a few weeks earlier. He was 79 and lived in Newton Highlands.

Part of a distinguished psychoanalytic family, and trained as an analyst, he chose his own path by spending decades contemplating what dreams and nightmares reveal about the mind. “The waking mind is on a hunt,” Dr. Hartmann told the Boston Phoenix in 1999. “The dreaming mind is on an exploration.”

His own travels, waking and sleeping, ranged widely geographically and intellectually. Born in Vienna, he was a son of Heinz Hartmann, a psychoanalyst who was a favorite of Sigmund Freud. Young Ernest met Freud and joked in later years that “Freud was 80 and I was 2, so it was not a great meeting of the minds.”

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Nor was the encounter an immediate inspiration. “He wanted to be a carpenter when he was a child and he gradually decided that he was a scientist,” said his brother, Dr. Lawrence Hartmann, a former president of the American Psychiatric Association.

Curious from early on, Ernest Hartmann “was always looking for some interesting new way of thinking about things,” said Dr. Anton Kris, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a friend since the two were children. “He enjoyed his use of his mind. He was constantly in intellectual motion.”

As World War II began in Europe, the Hartmann family moved to Paris, then Switzerland, and then New York City, where Dr. Hartmann graduated from the Fieldston School.

At the University of Chicago, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1952 and began graduate studies in biology, philosophy, and literature before going to the Yale University School of Medicine, from which he graduated in 1958. Postgraduate studies took him to Paris, New York City, Harvard Medical School, and the National Institute of Mental Health before he graduated from the Boston Psychoanalytic Institute in 1972.

During some of those years he also served as a lieutenant commander in the US Public Health Service. More recently, he was a psychiatry professor at Tufts University School of Medicine until retiring last year.

Beginning in the early 1960s, Dr. Hartmann conducted pioneering research and in 1967 published his first book, “The Biology of Dreaming.” Adding context to his inquiries, he studied how animals sleep and had a lifelong affinity for elephants.

“Of course there’s a biology of dreaming,” Dr. Hartmann told the Globe in 1999, but he added: “There’s no way that makes dreams random and meaningless.”

“Everything was material for study,” said Dr. Gerald Denis, an associate professor of medicine at the Boston University School of Medicine, a longtime friend who was part of Dr. Hartmann’s monthly dream discussion group. Participants described their own dreams in an informal extension of Dr. Hartmann’s scholarly work.

“We end up knowing each other’s unconscious really well,” Denis said.

A past president of the Association for the Study of Dreams, Dr. Hartmann looked into the unconscious minds of thousands through the years, including through his studies of troubled sleep.

“I believe that the nightmare, far from being a failed or aberrant dream, is one of the most important kinds of dream, and the one in which we can most easily observe a process which probably occurs in all dreams,” he wrote in one scientific paper. “In this sense the nightmare is the most useful of dreams.”

On a parallel path with science, he pursued literature, and he published his own poetry.

“He liked to identify himself as a poet, a scientist, a researcher,” said his daughter, Kate of South Portland, Maine. “The bottom line is that he was not like anyone you ever met. He was really interested in everything.’

Dr. Hartmann, who retained the Austrian accent of his youth, “was always reading a dozen books,” his daughter said. “I was at his house the other night and was picking up poetry journal after poetry journal.”

His marriages to the former Barbara Hengst and Eva Neumann both ended in divorce. Gatherings of family, extended family, and friends were always important to him, though, often for meals or time on the Cape.

“He wanted to have everyone there together, the more the merrier,” his daughter said. “You always knew how glad he was to see you and how sorry he was to see you go, so hellos and good-byes were a big deal.”

Dr. Hartmann particularly adored his 9-year-old grandson. “He just loved Henry,” his daughter said.

“The love affair between a grandparent and a grandchild is one of the great love affairs on earth,” Dr. Hartmann’s brother said.

Dr. Hartmann could be nearly as devoted to other friends and relatives. “I think he held tight to what was dear to him, and what was dear to him was home and the places and people he loved,” his daughter said.

In an age when many avoid phone conversations, “he was very much someone who called,” she said. “And if anyone called my Dad, he picked up. He wanted to be connected to people.”

In addition to his daughter, brother, and grandson, Dr. Hartmann leaves a son, Jonathan of New Haven.

A memorial service will be held at 2 p.m. Oct. 6 in Wilson Chapel at Andover Newton Theology School in Newton.

“The thing I think about him so much is he didn’t let anything deter him from life,” said Barbara Kislak, a Truro neighbor of Dr. Hartmann’s. “He really believed in life.”

That was true the crisp, clear morning he left his Truro house for a final bicycle ride, and true as he concluded his last book, still musing about how everything seemed connected.

“After all my years of trying, I do not completely understand dreaming . . . have I really discovered something? Or have I created something, invented something? Does it matter? Are the two processes — discovery and creation — really separable?”

Bryan Marquard can be reached at bmarquard@globe.com.

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