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Child Study Center celebrates 100 years of mental health research

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2011 - Spring


As the School of Medicine’s bicentennial year draws to a close, Yale’s Child Study Center (CSC) celebrates a milestone of its own. A series of four symposia marks the centennial of an institution that has grown from a single room in the New Haven Dispensary into a leader in multidisciplinary research on children’s mental health.

One of the School of Medicine’s 28 departments, the CSC evolved and matured together with the field of developmental psychology—which was still young at the turn of the 20th century. The founder of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, did not publish his major work on developmental psychology—Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality—until 1905.

Freud’s ideas did, however, influence G. Stanley Hall, the first president of Clark University and an early proponent of developmental psychology. One of Hall’s students, Arnold L. Gesell, Ph.D., a native of Wisconsin, received one of the first two doctorates conferred in developmental psychology in the United States from Clark in 1906. Gesell became an assistant professor in Yale’s new Department of Education in 1911. On his arrival, Gesell persuaded the medical school’s dean, George Blumer, M.D. 1891, to provide a room in the dispensary for the study of retarded children. While working part time, Gesell then enrolled in the School of Medicine and received his M.D. in 1915, four years after he’d opened his clinic in the dispensary.

Gesell’s work influenced not only the department he founded—then called the Yale Clinic of Child Development—but also the burgeoning field of child psychology as well as pediatrics. He was among the first to attempt a quantitative study of children’s maturation, observing and measuring the responses of infants and children to different stimuli. A pioneer in the use of motion pictures and one-way mirrors, he filmed about 12,000 children to record and study their behavioral patterns. Mental development, he concluded, occurs in an identifiable sequence of stages similar to those associated with physical development. Some of Gesell’s data were integrated into schedules used to calculate the Gesell Developmental Quotient—for a time a widely used measure of young children’s intelligence. One of his most prominent students was Benjamin Spock, Med ’29, whose ideas about child care influenced generations of parents. Although some of Gesell’s views have fallen out of favor, he exerted a strong influence on American psychology in general as well as on childrearing practices. Gesell retired from the University in 1948 and died in 1961.

The first of four symposia was held on January 11 and focused on infant mental health and development, with talks by the CSC faculty as well as by Helen Egger, M.D. ’91, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke University School of Medicine. Subsequent symposia will honor Gesell’s successors as CSC directors: Milton J.E. Senn, M.D., Donald J. Cohen, M.D. ’66, and Albert J. Solnit, M.D., HS ’52.

CSC chair Fred R. Volkmar, M.D., smiled brightly when asked about the center’s future. “We’ve got a big push for anxiety programs,” he said, adding that a recent donation will fund three new professorships. Anxiety disorders, he said, affect about 20 percent of the population and often lead to or are associated with such problems as depression and mood disorders.

Expansion is also occurring in the area of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). “For the first time, we have kids with [ASDs] going to college on a regular basis, which is great,” said Volkmar. “But they need some special help, and so we’re trying to think about ways we can meet that need.” Although psychologists have made great strides in their ability to diagnose and intervene in children with ASDs, Volkmar noted that adolescents and young adults with these disorders still need support as they complete their education and enter mainstream society.

Another point of pride for Volkmar is the CSC’s Albert J. Solnit Integrated Training Program, a highly selective and innovative six-year program begun in July 2004. The program, which admits only two trainees per year, combines the traditional internship, residency, and fellowship years and prepares trainees for board examinations in both adult and child psychiatry.

An innovative program from its start in 1911, Yale’s CSC is still the leader in the field. Volkmar credits the department’s collaborative model—at least in part—for its success. “Some of the things here we take for granted,” he said, noting that the center’s scientists work in a range of fields, from neurobiology of developmental disorders to stem cells to MRI. “Because there’s so much going on,” he said, “it means there’s more potential for cross-disciplinary work,” which is critical to the successes he is aiming for.

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