Arnold Gesell (1880-1961)

Source: Courtesy of the Gesell Institute of Human Development, New Haven, CT

Arnold Gesell


Source: Arnold Gesell Papers, Library of Congress, used by permission of Mrs. Joseph W. Walden

Gesell with a mother and child in his Yale clinic


Born in Alma, Wisconsin, Arnold Gesell was a psychologist and physician who influenced the way many Americans thought about children’s development. “Nothing in the field of social welfare needs more deliberate and conscious regulation than child adoption,” he declared, neatly summarizing the goals of adoption reformers during the first half of the twentieth century. Throughout his long career at Yale University, Gesell championed minimum standards and professionally governed family formation. He worked with the most important advocacy organizations of his day, including the U.S. Children’s Bureau and the Child Welfare League of America. Gesell spoke and wrote widely on such topics as placement age, preplacement testing, and clinical supervision in adoption. He favored the confidentiality of adoption records. His public reputation was a hallmark of his career and he tried hard to popularize methods of scientific selection and matching in adoption. Like other adoption reformers, Gesell believed that adoption agencies run by trained experts would arrange adoptions far superior to those arranged through baby farms or black market adoptions based on commerce or sentiment.

Gesell attended the University of Wisconsin, where he was swept up in the tide of Progressive reform. After completing his Ph.D. at Clark University, he moved to New York City, where he taught elementary school and lived in the East Side Settlement House before launching an academic career. He headed Yale’s Clinic of Child Development, founded in 1911. It was here that Gesell conducted his famous studies of hundreds of New Haven children, from the late 1910s through the 1930s. His project brought children into his Yale laboratory, where they were given mental and behavioral challenges ranging from bells and balls to stairs and strangers. He meticulously recorded their responses in numbers, pictures, and films. Whatever more than half of the children he studied did regularly was defined as “normal.”

Gesell’s ambitious goal was to establish universal developmental norms beginning at birth. The idea that development follows regular patterns over time is commonplace today, but it was then a novel way of thinking about growth. It also had significant practical consequences. The applied technology that Gesell’s research produced was a scale–a test–that promised to measure whether children were developing normally or deviating from expected patterns of mental, motor, linguistic, and social growth. By measuring more than intelligence, or I.Q. (“intelligence quotient”), the Gesell scales moved beyond the first generation of mental tests. They were widely utilized by clinicians working in medical and educational fields. In adoption, they were used to determine if children were qualified for adoption in the first place. At a time when social workers worried about under- and over-placement (errors that gave bright children to dull parents and dull children to bright parents), the Gesell scale also guided which children were placed with which parents.

Gesell believed that adoption was risky and even inappropriate for some children, but he also believed that the risks could be measured and predicted in advance. This made him a technological optimist. He was less inclined than many of his peers toward eugenics and the view that most dependent children were unadoptable because they were products of bad heredity. Gesell trusted developmental testing to prevent the adoption of defective children, but he also trusted it to make adoption better for the children and adults involved.

Here is how he put it in 1926: “[Adoption] can not be entrusted altogether to good will or to intuitive impulse, or even to unaided common sense. There are too many opportunities for error and miscarriage. The combined critical judgment of the social investigator, the court, the physician, and the mental examiner should enter into the regulation of adoption. . . . Systematic psychoclinical examinations not only will reduce the wastes of error and miscarriage but will serve to reveal children of normal and superior endowment beneath the concealment of neglect, of poverty, or of poor repute. Clinical safeguards can not solve all the problems of child adoption but they can steadily improve its methods and make them both more scientific and humane.”


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