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Mission & History

The mission of the Yale Child Study Center is to improve the mental health of children and families, advance understanding of their psychological and developmental needs, and treat and prevent childhood mental illness through the integration of research, clinical practice, and professional training.


Dr. Arnold Gesell sitting with a baby.

For over a century, the Yale Child Study Center (YCSC) has been serving children and families through research and clinical work conducted by faculty whose contributions in understanding child development and neuropsychiatric disorders are internationally recognized. Founded in 1911 by Arnold Gesell, M.D., Ph.D. as the Yale Clinic of Child Development, the center was initially located in a room in the New Haven Dispensary. During Gesell's 37 years at Yale, the clinic grew in size and productivity, and moved into a larger building

Considered the father of child development in U.S., Gesell was a meticulous observer and researcher. He was also a prolific writer in both the scientific and lay press. Gesell became well known for his studies of normal child development and his use of cinema-analysis, beginning in the 1920s, to document developmental milestones in children from infancy through school age, up to and including adolescence. Gesell published more than a dozen books about his findings, including An Atlas of Infant Behavior, which contains 3,200 action photographs.

After Gesell’s retirement in 1948, he was replaced by Milton J.E. Senn, M.D., a pediatrician with psychoanalytic training from Cornell University. Senn was recruited to serve as chair of Yale’s Department of Pediatrics and director of the Yale Clinic of Child Development. Senn changed the name of the clinic to the Yale Child Study Center, in line with the University’s definition of a center as similar to an academic department, but with a more multidisciplinary faculty. The term “child study” denoted a broader scope than child development alone, including the fields of pediatrics, psychiatry, and psychology. The rationale was that a child study center was more academic and comprehensive than a child development clinic. Senn initiated numerous clinical and research collaborations with pediatrics, as well as a major longitudinal study of infants. He resigned as chair of pediatrics after ten years in order to devote all of his time to direct the YCSC. After his retirement at age 65, Senn was replaced by Dr. Albert J. Solnit in 1966.

Solnit, who was the Center’s first resident in child psychiatry, was also a pediatrician, psychoanalyst, and social activist. Through the remainder of the 1960’s and 70’s, collaborative work continued under Solnit’s leadership, including pediatric developmental research with children in orphanages and foster care. New clinical programs were created, while consultations to juvenile courts as well as local, state, and federal policymakers became major new areas of interest. Solnit was not only interested in legal, community, and applied psychoanalytic understandings; he was also aware that the brain was fast becoming a popular and exciting focus of biomedical research.

To ensure that YCSC would be at the forefront of this work, Solnit hired Donald J. Cohen in 1972. A young child psychiatrist who had studied philosophy and psychology at Cambridge as a Fulbright Scholar, Cohen was a researcher focused on brain neurotransmitters who would also become an adult and child psychoanalyst. When Solnit retired in 1983, Cohen became YCSC director, a role he maintained until his death in 2001. Under Cohen’s leadership, federal grant funding blossomed, particularly in the areas of neurochemistry, molecular and population genetics, and neuroimaging. In addition, Cohen was deeply committed to international activities. He actively promoted and improved research and clinical services for children and helped foster new clinics and strong collaborations throughout the world.

John E. Schowalter, M.D., stepped into the role of interim and acting director in 2011. Schowalter first came to Yale in 1960 as a pediatric intern and served as a YCSC child psychiatry resident between 1963 and 1965. Having directed the Child Psychiatry Residency Training Program for almost 30 years, Schowalter played a central role at the YCSC as a national and international leader in child psychiatry. In 2002, the director role was filled by Alan E. Kazdin, Ph.D., a prior chair of Yale’s Department of Psychology. Kazdin and his research had been part of YCSC through the Child Conduct Clinic, an outpatient service devoted to the evaluation and treatment of children referred for aggressive and antisocial behavior.

In 2006, Fred Volkmar, M.D. assumed the role of center director and department chair. Prior to this, he directed the YCSC’s internationally known autism clinic and served as director of autism research at Yale. An author of several hundred scientific papers and chapters as well as a number of books, Volkmar continued the center’s tradition as a national and international leader in the field of children’s mental health.

In 2016, Linda C. Mayes, M.D., the Arnold Gesell Professor of Child Psychiatry, Pediatrics, and Psychology in the Child Study Center, was appointed department chair and center director, after having served as interim for just over a year. Mayes joined the YCSC faculty in 1985, when she established a laboratory for studying infant learning and attention. A pediatrician and psychoanalyst, she has published widely on developmental psychology, pediatrics, and child psychiatry. Her leadership continues to advance the multidisciplinary and multi-faceted mission of the center today.