Who's Who

HomeATS CommunityWho's Who ▶ Jerome Dempsey: “I Have Never Looked Back”
Jerome Dempsey: “I Have Never Looked Back”

January 2016

Jerome "Jerry" Dempsey,

Jerome “Jerry” Dempsey, PhD, was born and raised in Canada. His first career aspiration was to become a professional baseball player; later he modified that plan and pursued an undergraduate degree in biology and physical education at the University of Western Ontario, then taught high school science and coached young athletes.

When school was out for the summer one year, he had an opportunity to work in a lab at the University of Alberta. There he found his next calling, and decided he wanted more than just a short-term experience—he wanted to become a scientist. So, in 1963, he went to the University of Wisconsin-Madison to pursue that goal.

“I began studying fat cells in obesity, but that only lasted half a year,” he explains. “Soon after I arrived, I met John Rankin, MD, an extraordinary mentor and pulmonologist whose publications in the 1950s in Glasgow, Scotland, produced the Rankin (or Glasgow) scale for stroke diagnosis and prognosis. It is still used in clinical trials today. I was fascinated with his work on exercise and pulmonary diffusion, so I started in his lab and have never looked back.”

Today, Dr. Dempsey is the director of research at the John Rankin Laboratory, where he supervises trainees and serves as an instructor in respiratory, exercise, and sleep physiology for medical students, undergraduates and graduate students. His major research emphasis has been on respiration in health and disease, from control to mechanics to respiratory muscles, both while awake and asleep and using humans as well as animal models.

“In the last few years, we’ve been researching new ideas for the pathogenesis of sleep apnea and ways it might be treated,” he says. “Most recently, I’ve been working with biomedical engineers to study novel sleep apnea treatments. It is probably the last original research I’ll do before I retire.”

Recently, he has also proposed that most humans are poorly equipped for exposure to hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) because most of their key adaptations also have negative consequences.

“Through our work in sleep apnea, we now know much about how oxygen deprivation negatively affects the human body,” he says. “This, in combination with other research that shows the limited oxygen in high altitudes, has a negative effect on human health and makes me very skeptical that humans can truly adapt to hypoxemia.”

Dr. Dempsey says his most rewarding work is when he is teaching or one-on-one mentoring. The Rankin Laboratory has supervised the training of 68 pre- and post-doctoral fellows since it opened, and the great majority continues to practice their science.

One of his past mentees is M. Safwan Badr, MD, MBA, who currently is professor and chief, Pulmonary Critical Care and Sleep Medicine, Department of Internal Medicine, Harper University Hospital, Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan.

“Jerry is an outstanding mentor who demanded the best from each team member and cared deeply about their careers,” Dr. Badr says. “I never knew anyone who cared more deeply about those who worked with him. Jerry taught me to question the prevailing dogma and then challenge it with sound research. I also learned from him that indifference is the greatest sin. I live by this dictum.”

Scott Powers, PhD, is a leading researcher in respiratory muscle physiology and a colleague who has known Dr. Dempsey for more than 25 years and is currently a professor in the Department of Applied Physiology and Kinesiology at the University of Florida-Gainsville and director of the Center for Exercise Science. He agrees that Dr. Dempsey has contributed much to his trainees, and to medicine.

“Jerry Dempsey is a remarkable scientist with great passion for the study of respiratory biology. Without question, his outstanding research has greatly advanced this field. Importantly, Jerry has also contributed to respiratory physiology by his outstanding teaching and mentoring of the next generation of respiratory biologists,” Dr. Powers says.

Dr. Dempsey remains optimistic about research and the science of medicine, primarily because he knows there are now many well-trained researchers, pushing the limits of what we can learn and discover. He offers some sage advice to those just beginning in their careers:

“I highly encourage young basic scientists to form partnerships with clinical investigators at an early stage,” he says. “Collaboration is so important, and I have learned so much from clinicians. I also had my mentees address clinically relevant questions and become involved with clinicians whenever possible.”

One of the reasons he has valued his involvement with ATS is because it offered him this opportunity to interact with clinicians. In 1976, he began a 30-year collaboration with the late James B. Skatrud, MD, a pulmonologist. Working together with epidemiologists, they built one of only three centers in the U.S. at that time to study the prevalence, causes, and consequences of sleep apnea.

Dr. Dempsey has been a sports enthusiast all his life, and he continues to participate in ice hockey and softball, and work out every day. He also enjoys coaching his granddaughter’s softball team, something he has done for 10 years. He and his wife, Barbara, have been involved as volunteers in the Big Brothers Big Sisters program for 50 years.

Last Reviewed: September 2017