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Gesell was born in Alma, Wisconsin, whose dysgenic qualities Gesell later analysed in The Village of a Thousand Souls. He was the eldest of five children and the son of a photographer and a teacher, individuals who were both interested in education. Watching his younger siblings learn and grow helped to establish in him an interest in children.
With plans to become a teacher, Gesell attended Stevens Point Normal School after he graduated from high school in 1896. Here, he took a course with the Clark University-educated Edgar James Swift, who piqued Gesell’s interest in psychology. He worked as a high school teacher briefly, but then went on to study at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. There he took history courses taught by Frederick Jackson Turner and psychology courses taught by Joseph Jastrow, who started the psychology laboratory at the University of Wisconsin. Gesell received a Bachelor of Philosophy degree from Wisconsin in 1903. He served as a teacher and high school principal before continuing his education at Clark University, an early leader in psychology. Clark was highly influenced by its president, G. Stanley Hall, who founded the child study movement. Gesell received his Ph. D. from Clark in 1906. He worked at several educational facilities in New York City and Wisconsin before fellow Clark graduate Lewis Terman helped him get a professorship at the Los Angeles State Normal School. There he met fellow teacher Beatrice Chandler, a brilliant woman whom he married. They later had a daughter and a son. After spending time at schools for persons with mental disabilities, such as the Vineland Training School in New Jersey, which was run by Henry H. Goddard, he developed an interest in studying children with disabilities.
Determined to become a doctor, he spent some time studying at the University of Wisconsin Medical School. Later he served as an assistant professor at Yale University while studying medicine. He developed the Clinic of Child Development there and received his M.D. in 1915. He was eventually given a full professorship at Yale. He also served as the school psychologist for the Connecticut State Board of Education and helped to develop classes to help children with disabilities succeed. He wrote several books, including The Preschool Child from the Standpoint of Public Hygiene and Education in 1923, The Mental Growth of the Preschool Child in 1925 (which was also published as a film), and An Atlas of Infant Behavior (chronicling typical milestones for certain ages) in 1934. He coauthored with Frances Ilg two childrearing guides, Infant and Child in the Culture of Today in 1943, and The Child from Five to Ten in 1946.
Gesell made use of the latest technology in his research. He used the newest in video and photography advancements. He also made use of one-way mirrors when observing children, even inventing the Gesell dome, a one-way mirror shaped as a dome, under which children could be observed without being disturbed. In his research he studied many children, including Kamala, the wolf girl. He also did research on young animals, including monkeys.
As a psychologist, Gesell realized the vast importance of both nature and nurture. He cautioned others not to be quick to attribute mental disabilities to specific causes. He believed that many aspects of human behavior, such as handedness and temperament were heritable. He understood that children adapted to their parents as well as to one another. He thought that a nationwide nursery school system would benefit America.
The Gesell Institute of Human Development, named after him, was started by his colleagues from the Clinic of Child Development, Dr. Frances Ilg and Dr. Louise Bates Ames in 1950, after Gesell retired from the university.
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