Gesell, Arnold L.

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Gesell, Arnold L.



Whatever else Arnold Gesell (1880–1961) may have accomplished, he made his name a household word in the United States: his books and articles on child development are legion, and some of the books were best sellers. For example, by 1943 Infant and Child in the Culture of Today had gone through 15 printings. At least one generation of American infants and preschoolers was reared according to the manuals provided by Gesell and his colleagues.

Gesell was born in Alma, Wisconsin; by the time he graduated from the local high school he was already deeply committed to science and the profession of teaching. At Clark University, where he earned his ph.d. degree in 1906, he came under the influence of G. Stanley Hall, one of the earliest psychologists to study child development. Gesell’s early dedication to teaching, combined with his contact with Hall, probably pointed him in the direction that led to his fame as the “father of scientific child study.”

After graduate study at Clark, Gesell spent several years as a teacher and principal in a public school, as a settlement worker, and as a normalschool and university professor. Finally, he found his niche at Yale, where he founded the Clinic of Child Development in 1911 and remained its director until his formal retirement in 1948. Gesell had already gained substantial professional status when he decided that medicine would give him greater depth as a research worker; accordingly, he studied medicine at Yale at the same time that he was an assistant professor, and he received his m.d. degree in 1915. Retirement 33 years later was only a formality for Gesell—he continued his clinical work and research for the Harvard Pediatric Study and at the Gesell Institute of Child Development.

Gesell’s power to attract able, almost fanatically devoted disciples is well known to both scientists and laymen. Most of these followers bear his stamp indelibly, have reflected credit on his name and on their apprenticeship to him, and are themselves well known in the field of child development. Not until the 1940s did a group of Young Turks in the fields of child and clinical psychology come to consider Gesell only as a recorder of norms, neatly labeled and classified but without the explanatory power that is psychology’s central interest.

Gesell did a basically respectable, and even a notable, job of combining clinical work with scientific observation of children. His photographic and one-way mirror studies of infants brought a new exactitude to the study of the young child. But his data about older children seem to have been less rigorously gathered. His coauthored books, e.g., The First Five Years of Life (1940) and The Child From Five to Ten (1946), tend to lose the individual child and to specify rather dogmatically an invariance and a genetic or constitutional universality of child development. These works simply assert the cyclical character of child development and underestimate the influence of the complex culture in which the child develops and learns. Development emerges as something mechanical: invariant, unchangeable, almost fatelike. The question may well be asked whether Gesell, with his rigid norms, his lack of individual variation, his strong emphasis on the constitutional, and his neg lect of the cultural, has not hindered parents in their rearing of children more than he has helped them.

The Gesell Development Schedules were perhaps not intended as measures of infant intelligence, but they were widely so used and were long considered nearly infallible. In fact, however, they have failed, for the most part, to predict later intellectual development of children, individually or in groups. The harm that has been done by the trusting employment of the schedules is incalcu lable: many children have been denied adoption and condemned to prolonged and blighting custody in infant-care institutions because their Developmental Quotients were low (and, predictably, became lower the longer the children stayed in the institutions).

Gesell wrote with a bland, almost Olympian certainty about how children develop, and unless his writings are examined carefully they carry the implication that his conclusions are based on the careful study, over an extended period, of untold hundreds of infants and children. Even the fine print does not reveal precisely the actual number of subjects who were studied at different ages. A sympathetic biographer has referred to “follow-up examinations on about 175 cases, with referrals from different agencies and persons of 600 to 700, mostly of preschool age, and 1,000 or more guidance and observational contacts centering on nursery children” (Miles 1964, p. 55). The considerably less sympathetic Milton J. E. Senn, Gesell’s successor at Yale, has pointed out that the sample for Gesell’s basic 1925 survey was all white and numbered only 107 middle-class children from a single city in New England, while studies of older children were based on even smaller samples— for example, for six-year-olds, only eleven girls and seven boys (1955).

This is slight evidence, indeed, for statements describing the six-year-old as follows: “He tends to go to extremes ….” (Gesell & IIg 1946, p. 90), or “An outstanding characteristic of the 6-year-old is his meager capacity to modulate” (p. 92), or “He does not only smile,—he fairly dances with joy. He cries copiously when unhappy, kicks and shakes with his grief. Even during sleep he pitches his whole organism into his dreams. Hence the gross arousals of his nightmares, which come to a peak at the age of six” (p. 94). And so on and on, for 42 pages.

In sum, Gesell no longer appears the superman of child development that he was considered in his heyday, in the 1930s and 1940s. Serious questions must be raised about the quality of his social in fluence and the advice to parents by his disciples— for example, the flat statement by Louise Ames that the time of first tooth eruption is perhaps the best predictor of later reading success. Yet none can deny him a measure of greatness: he was the most scientific of the early students of infant behavior. He did give great impetus to moving “child study” toward “a science of child behavior.” He fathered and fostered one of the great centers for child study. He trained some of the best workers in the field of child behavior and development and influenced (and still influences) them all. These are no mean achievements.

Boyd R. McCandless

[For the historical context of Gesell’s work, see the biography ofHall; for discussion of the subsequent development of Gesell’s ideas, seeAdolescence; Developmental Psychology; Infancy; Moral Development; Sensory and Motor Development; Socialization.]


1940 Yale University, Clinic of Child DevelopmentThe First Five Years of Life: A Guide to the Study of the Preschool Child. New York: Harper. → Contains “Early Mental Growth” by Arnold Gesell and “The Study of the Individual Child” by Arnold Gesell and Catherine S. Amatrada.

(1943) 1949 Gesell, Arnold; and Ilg, Frances L. Child Development: An Introduction to the Study of Human Growth. Part 1: Infant and Child in the Culture of Today. New York: Harper.

(1946) 1949 Gesell, Arnold; and Ilg, Frances L. Child Development: An Introduction to the Study of Human Growth. Part 2: The Child From Five to Ten. New York: Harper.

1952 Autobiography. Volume 4, pages 123-142 in A His tory of Psychology in Autobiography. Worcester, Mass.: Clark Univ. Press.


Miles, Walter R. 1964 Arnold Lucius Gesell, 1880-1961: A Biographical Memoir. National Academy of Sciences, Biographical Memoirs 37:55–96.

Senn, Milton J. E. 1955 The Epoch Approach to Child Development. Woman’s Home Companion 82, Nov.: 40-42, 60–62.