‘Dream Doctor’ Charles McPhee dies at 49

Charles McPhee, a nationally syndicated radio host and sleep expert known as the “Dream Doctor” and who helped listeners uncover the hidden meanings of their dreams, died May 8 at his home in Woodland Hills, Calif. He was 49.

He ended his show in 2006 when he received a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disorder also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Mr. McPhee’s top-rated radio program aired in the country’s biggest markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Houston, Salt Lake City, Minneapolis and San Francisco.

On the air, he sought to legitimize dream interpretation, a field of study that he said had strayed from its roots in the pioneering work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung.

Mr. McPhee, a Princeton graduate who wrote his thesis on dreaming, was among the first to admit that many in the public “associate dreams with astrology and tarot cards and horoscopes.”

“That’s the disaster portion of what’s happened in the field,” he told the Seattle Times in 2006.

With his academic approach and magnetic personality, Mr. McPhee was one of the first to popularize dream interpretation to a national audience through radio, said Veronica Tonay, a University of Santa Cruz psychology professor and fellow dream expert.

Mr. McPhee, who was tall and muscular with sandy blond hair and blue eyes, easily relayed his charisma and Southern California surfer cool through the radio waves, Tonay said.

A woman who once called in to his show said she had dreamed that she had arrived at her job as a waitress and started killing animals with her bare hands and ripped off the head of a cat.

Mr. McPhee suggested that in dreams animals are symbols for children and that cats represent fertility. The woman then said that her husband wanted kids but that she wanted to wait. Mr. McPhee said her dream was telling her “you’re not ready for babies yet.”

Another caller said he had a dream in which he was immobilized by glass shards stuck in his feet.

Mr. McPhee said that dreaming about feet can be a sign that you seek a change in your life’s direction. The man said that he hated his job and wanted to move on.

In 1997, Mr. McPhee started a Web site and invited people to send him descriptions of their dreams. He collected more than 600,000 dreams from 90 countries and used the data for his interpretations.

Overall, he found that regardless of nationality, age, gender, language or culture, people around the world dream about the same things.

“Our hopes and fears, our immediate and long-term goals, old wounds and fresh ones — they’re all there in our dreams every night,” Mr. McPhee said in 2006.

Not long after the ALS diagnosis in June 2006, Mr. McPhee had a dream that he was blind. He interpreted his own dream to mean that he was not seeing the severity of his illness. He canceled his show after he began to slur his speech, a common symptom of ALS, and spent more time deciphering his own legacy.

“My big goal in life was to learn and understand the language of dreams,” he told the New York Times in 2006. “I really feel like I’ve done it.”

Charles Lambert McPhee was born in Washington on April 24, 1962. He grew up in Potomac and graduated from Walt Whitman High School in 1980.

In childhood, he said, he was a frequent “lucid” dreamer, meaning he was aware of being in a dream while dreaming. “What fascinated me in my own dream life was that I was creating my dreams, but I didn’t understand them,” he told the Saratogian newspaper in 2005.

While attending Princeton University, he became frustrated by the lack of academic literature on the subject and started to research dream interpretation on his own. He persuaded his sociology professors to let him write his thesis on lucid dreaming. He later turned his work into a scholarly book published in 1995: “Stop Sleeping Through Your Dreams: A Guide to Awakening Consciousness During Dream Sleep.”

After graduating in 1985, he worked at the sleep research laboratory at the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda before moving to California in 1990.

The same year, he received a master’s degree in communication management from the University of Southern California.

He became an expert in sleep disorders and performed research at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. In all, he collected data on more than 30,000 hours of human sleep.

He started guest-hosting segments on sleep and dreams on local radio stations in California and met talent manager George Oliva III through a family connection.

Oliva, who helped launch the careers of Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger, saw Mr. McPhee’s potential and arranged to have him syndicated nationally.

Survivors include his wife, Petra Goebbel McPhee, and their two daughters, Celia and Ella, all of Woodland Hills; his parents, Joan McPhee and Henry McPhee, both of Potomac; a brother; and two sisters. He is the nephew of Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee.

On his Web site, Charles McPhee had advice for drowsy workers who get caught sleeping on the job. If you get busted, he said, the first thing you should say when you raise your head off the desk is, “Amen.”

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.