Gesell, Arnold Lucius

views updated May 18 2018

Gesell, Arnold Lucius

(b. Alma, Wisconsin, 21 June 1880; d. New Haven, Connecticut, 29 May 1961)


Trained in pedagogy, psychology, and medicine, Gesell developed a systematic program of research in human growth and development during many years of work with normal and problem children at Yale University’s Clinic of Child Development; and through his associates, students, and a multitude of publications, he disseminated his conclusions for practical application and elaboration, initiating a new concept in child care.

Gesell was the oldest of the five children of Gerhard and Christine Giesen Gesell. His mother taught elementary school in the small town where he was born and raised. After graduation from high schoolin 1896, he went to the Stevens Point Normal School to train as a teacher, then taught for a short time at the Stevens Point High School.

Gesell next went to the University of Wisconsin, where he received the in 1903 with a thesis on higher education in Ohio and Wisconsin. He was principal of the high school in Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, the following year; but having come under the influence of Joseph Jastrow, professor of psychology at Wisconsin, he enrolled in Clark University, Worcester, Massachusetts, where G. Stanley Hall, pioneer in child psychology, introduced him to this then-new field of investigation. There Gesell earned the Ph.D. in 1906 with a thesis on jealousy.

For the next two years Gesell taught at the California State Normal School in Los Angeles, where on 18 February 1909, he married Beatrice Chandler. The following summer he went to study at the Pennsylvania Training School for Feeble-Minded Children, where Lightner Witmer (who founded this institution as well as the country’s first psychological clinic at the University of Pennsylvania) was director. The Gesells also spent several weeks that summer at the Training School for Feeble-Minded Children in Vineland, New Jersey, where Henry Goddard, director of psychological research, was investigating the application of Binet tests to feebleminded children.

Gesell considered this visit to Vineland as the beginning of his professional interest in mentally defective children; and he later for several years conducted summer courses with Goddard at New York University, in which they trained special teachers for defective children. In 1910 he studied anatomy at the University of Wisconsin; and the following year, having joined the department of education at Yale University, he enrolled at the same time as a medical student there. The dean of the medical school, George Blumer, provided him with space in the New Haven Dispensary to study retarded children. Thus the Clinic of Child Development originated in 1911, while Gesell was still pursuing his medical degree. He received the M. D. in 1915 and was made professor in the Yale Graduate School of Medicine.

From 1915 to 1919 Gesell served as school psychologist for the Connecticut State Board of Education. This entailed identifying handicapped children and devising individualized programs for them. In 1918 he surveyed mental conditions in the elementary schools of New Haven, and from 1919 to 1921 he served on the Governor’s Commission on Child Welfare. In 1924 he initiated the use of cinematography in psychological research and established, in 1925, the Photographic Library of Yale Research Films of Child Development, supervising for many years the production of still and motion pictures at Yale. With the cooperation of Louise Ames and Frances L. Ilg, Gesell issued a nationally syndicated column on child studies. Generous funds granted in 1926 by the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial Foundation and other private foundations supported his research and enabled him to establish a nursery which provided for the observation and guidance of children as well as for aiding parents in caring for them. Here, in 1930, he devised a one-way observation dome for research and teaching of child behavior, a sort of “candid camera” technique, by means of which he could observe and record infant behavior without being seen.

From 1928 to 1948 Gesell was attending pediatrician at the New Haven Hospital. When he became professor emeritus of child hygiene upon his retirement in 1948, he directed the Yale Child Vision Research Project for two years; from 1948 to 1952 he also served as research associate on the Harvard Pediatric Study. In 1950 the Gesell Institute of Child Development was founded, superseding the Yale Clinic of Child Development, and here Gesell served as consultant and lecturer in the School for Social Research for the rest of his life. He was a member of the National Research Council (1937–1940), the American Psychological Association, the National Academy of Sciences, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The American Academy of Pediatrics decided in 1934 that a requirement for membership would be certification by the American Board of Pediatrics; an exception—and the only exception was made for Gesell in 1948 because of his outstanding contributions in the field of child development. Clark University conferred an honorary D.Sc. in 1930, and the same degree was awarded him in 1953 by the University of Wisconsin.

Gesell’s significance lies in his development of new methods in the study of children. He placed particular emphasis on the preschool years, a period that had previously received only cursory attention. His studies led him to conclusions about the psychological care of infants and the guidance of children that exerted an important influence on the attitudes and practices of nursery schools, kindergartens, and elementary schools. In addition, he inspired a group of active disciples who are continuing his work, and had a talent for popularizing and gaining support for his ideas. Some of his concepts related to predictive measurement of mental development in children have been adopted into current pediatrics.


I. Original Works. Gesell’s writings include The First Five Years of Life (New York, 1940); Developmental Diagnosis (New York, 1941; 2nd ed., rev. and enl., 1947), written with Catherine S. Armatruda, for medical students and practitioners, with translations into several other languages; Infant and Child in the Culture of Today (New York, 1943), written with Janet Learned and Louise B. Ames, which presents the significance of a democratic culture for the psychological welfare of infants and young children, and is based on studies of the relationship between the pressures of natural growth, which Gesell called “maturation,” and the pressure of the social order, termed “acculturation”; and The Child From Five to Ten (New York, 1946), written with Frances Ilg, which supplements The First Five Years of Life, as both complement Infant and Child in the Culture of Today. An extensive bibliography is included by Miles, in his memoir listed below.

II. Secondary Literature. On Gesell’s life and work, see Walter R. Miles, “Arnold Lucius Gesell,” in Biographical Memoirs. National Academy of Sciences, 37 (1964), 55–96. See also Who’s Who in America, 31 (1960–1961), 1066: and the obituary in Journal of the American Medical Association, 117 (1961), 75.

Samuel X. Radbill

Arnold Lucius Gesell

views updated Jun 08 2018

Arnold Lucius Gesell

Arnold Lucius Gesell (1880-1961) was an American psychologist and pediatrician whose pioneering research on the process of human development from birth through adolescence made a lasting mark on the scientific investigation of child development.

Arnold Lucius Gesell was born on June 21, 1880, in Alma, Wisconsin. His parents highly valued education, and early in his life, Gesell decided he wanted to become a teacher. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1903 and then became a high school teacher and principal before entering graduate school at Clark University, where he received a Ph.D. degree in 1906. Gesell believed that in order to do research in child development, he also needed medical knowledge, so he studied medicine at Yale, receiving an M.D. in 1915. Early in his career he taught psychology and child hygiene at the Los Angeles State Normal School.

Gesell joined the faculty at Yale as assistant professor of education in 1911 and established and directed the Yale Clinic of Child Development from 1911 to 1948. The Yale Clinic became the focal United States center for the study of child behavior in its time. From 1948 until his death, Gesell served as director of the famous Gesell Institute of Child Development in New Haven, Connecticut, which continued the work begun in the Yale Clinic. Gesell died in New Haven on May 29, 1961.

Gesell was one of the first to attempt a quantitative study of child development. Louise Bates Ames, one of his co-workers, described his work as "painstaking" and "controlled." Developing his own methods of observation and measurement, Gesell had children, including infants, of different ages respond to different stimulus objects such as cubes and pellets and bells while he observed their behavior and responses. After 1926 he used the motion picture camera as the main means of observing children, filming about 12,000 children.

Gesell's initial work focussed on retarded children, but he believed that it was necessary to understand normal infant and child development in order to understand nonnormality. He also studied Down's syndrome, cretinism, and cerebral palsy.

Gesell's pioneer work on infant mental development led him to conclude that the mental development of children appears to follow certain regularities comparable to the kind of regularities in physical development. He documented patterns and similarities in children's mental development and claimed that individuals go through an identifiable sequence of stages. Gesell's work is often cited as supporting a belief in predetermined natural stages of mental development in the later heated controversy over nature versus nurture in educational readiness.

Some of the data Gesell obtained were integrated into schedules which could be used to calculate the Gesell Development Quotient, or DQ. For a while the DQ was widely used as a measure of the intelligence of young children.

Later researchers raised questions about some of Gesell's findings. The DQ is no longer used, and some say Gesell's conclusions were based on a limited number of cases and a restricted sample of all white, middle-class children in one New England city. Others believe he made too little allowance for individual variations in growth and for cultural influences on child behavior.

There is no question, however, about Gesell's pervasive influence on American psychology and education and on child-rearing practices. Gesell sometimes spoke directly to parents, advocating "discerning guidance" rather than rigidity with rules or, on the other hand, overpermissiveness. He also considered questions such as the psychological factors in adoption and the effect of premature birth on mental development. His books gave norms for behavior at successive stages of development. Three books widely read by parents in the 1940s and 1950s were: Infant and Child in the Culture of Today (with Francis L. Ilg, 1940), The Child from Five to Ten (with Frances L. Ilg, 1946), and Youth: The Years from Ten to Sixteen (with Frances L. Ilg and Louise Bates Ames, 1956).

Further Reading

Among the many books that Gesell wrote are: Guidance of Mental Growth in Infant and Child (1930), How a Baby Grows (1945), and Studies in Child Development (1948).

Gesell is listed in Webster's American Biographies (1979). Irvine provides a brief biographical sketch of Gesell in "Pioneers in Special Education," in Journal of Special Education (Winter 1971). The International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (1968) gives insight into his work and life.

Additional Sources

Ames, Louise Bates, Arnold Gesell: themes of his work, New York, N.Y.: Human Sciences Press, 1989. □

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