A big birthday for Child Study Center

A century of child development research and compassionate care for childhood disorders is marked by world-renowned Yale department

Arnold Gesell, founder of the clinic that would become the Yale Child Study Center and a pioneer in research on children, employed the relatively new medium of motion pictures to record and observe behavioral patterns in infants.
Arnold Gesell, founder of the clinic that would become the Yale Child Study Center and a pioneer in research on children, employed the relatively new medium of motion pictures to record and observe behavioral patterns in infants.
Cushing/Whitney Medical Library

As the School of Medicine’s bicentennial year draws to a close, Yale’s venerable Child Study Center (CSC) has begun celebrating a milestone of its own—its 100th anniversary.

One of the School of Medicine’s 28 departments, the CSC was born in 1911 when Wisconsin native Arnold Gesell, Ph.D., M.D., a young assistant professor in Yale University’s new graduate Department of Education, persuaded medical school Dean George Blumer, M.D., to give him a single room in the New Haven Dispensary (a community clinic at the medical school founded in the late 19th century) for use in a study of mentally retarded children. From these humble beginnings, the CSC has become a world-renowned center for the study and treatment of developmental disorders and other psychological conditions affecting children.

In 1921, Gesell was named to lead an expanded Clinic of Child Development, where his work profoundly influenced a burgeoning field. As one of the first researchers to attempt a quantitative study of development by measuring the responses of infants and children to different stimuli, Gesell used the relatively new medium of film to record and study behavioral patterns, eventually filming about 12,000 children. He concluded that mental development occurs in identifiable stages, similar to those seen in physical development. Although some of his views have since fallen out of favor, Gesell’s overall influence on American psychology, as well as on child-rearing practices, has been a lasting one.

Following Gesell’s retirement, Milton J.E. Senn, M.D., was recruited in 1948 to serve as both chairman of the Department of Pediatrics and director of the renamed and reorganized CSC. The designation as a center reflected the University’s desire for a multidisciplinary approach to the study of children and child development. An innovator in pediatrics, Senn was a pioneer in bringing mental health principles into pediatric practice, and as the CSC’s new leader he welcomed the insights of social workers, early childhood educators, and other nonmedical child specialists.

Senn was succeeded in 1966 by Albert J. Solnit, M.D., who had been the first resident in child psychiatry at Yale. Solnit was a child psychiatrist, pediatrician, and psychoanalyst who pioneered work on social policy and child custody. He built even more interdisciplinary connections, fostering collaborations with Yale Law School and overseeing the formal establishment of the CSC as a department of both the medical school and Yale-New Haven Hospital.

The CSC also was deeply influenced by its fourth director, the late Donald J. Cohen, M.D., one of the most influential American child psychiatrists of his generation. Cohen upended tradition, rejecting conventional notions that development can be explained in either environmental or genetic terms and seeking to bridge these two viewpoints. In Cohen’s studies of autism, for example, he blended the latest research findings, and he came to view the disorder as both genetically and neurologically based—a break from the then-common belief that autism resulted from flawed parenting.

In the difficult period following Cohen’s death in 2001, John E. Schowalter, M.D., now professor emeritus in the CSC, filled in as interim director until 2002, when Alan E. Kazdin, Ph.D., now John M. Musser Professor of Psychology at Yale and a leader in the development of evidence-based treatments for mental disorders in children, was named the CSC’s fifth director. The current director, Fred R. Volkmar, M.D., the Irving B. Harris Professor of Child Psychiatry, Pediatrics, and Psychiatry, was inspired by Cohen’s work, and initially came to the CSC in 1980 to work with him. Volkmar has gone on to become a leading scholar in autism and related disorders.

Over the last 100 years the CSC has been home to generations of faculty and trainees who have shaped both the science and social policy surrounding childhood development and mental health issues. The Center now includes the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, named for Edward F. Zigler, Ph.D., Sterling Professor Emeritus of Psychology and chief architect of the Head Start and Early Head Start programs. The Zigler Center has dramatically changed the landscape of services for children and families locally, regionally, and globally. James P. Comer, M.D., M.P.H., the Maurice Falk Professor of Child Psychiatry in the CSC and associate dean for student progress at the School of Medicine, began developing a plan to improve low-achieving elementary schools in New Haven in 1968. Modeled on the understanding that development and learning are inextricably linked, that program, now known as the School Development Program, or SDP, informs state and national education policy and practice and has been implemented in hundreds of schools around the world.

Today the CSC remains at the forefront of the field of child development. Researchers at the Center are making significant strides in many areas, using brain-wave technology, genomics, and neuroimaging, and conducting clinical trials to study such diverse phenomena as the lasting effects of stress and trauma during early brain development; accurate diagnosis of autism in infancy; psychosocial care for children diagnosed with cancer; the genetic and neural bases of autism, Tourette’s syndrome, and other developmental disorders; and the efficacy of drugs in treating childhood disorders. The Albert J. Solnit Training Program, established in 2004 as a lasting tribute to the former CSC director, perpetuates Solnit’s dedication to clinical excellence and superior education. This six-year, combined clinical and research program admits only two students per year, qualifying graduates for both the adult and child psychiatry board exams and preparing them to help children and families who face the potential disruptions and devastations of a diagnosis of a mental health disorder.

Volkmar credits the center’s broad, multifaceted approach for its continued success. “Because there’s so much going on here, it means there’s more potential for cross-disciplinary work,” he says, a model that will guide the CSC through its second century of achievement.

  • Tags:
  • Child Study Center
  • History of Medicine
  • Infants
  • Psychiatry
  • Psychology
  • School Development Program

Related People

Edward Zigler

Professor Emeritus of Psychology

Fred Volkmar

Irving B. Harris Professor in the Child Study Center and Professor of Psychology

John Schowalter

Professor Emeritus in the Child Study Center

James Comer

Maurice Falk Professor in the Child Study Center