In Memoriam: Renowned Yale Child Psychiatrist Albert J. Solnit
A world-renowned pioneer in child psychiatry, Solnit spent 54 years at Yale and served as director of the Child Study Center from 1966 to 1983. Solnit also served as commissioner of the Connecticut State Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services from 1991 through 2000.
“He was a professional father throughout my career,” said John Schowalter, M.D., the Albert J. Solnit Professor of Child Psychiatry, professor of pediatrics and psychiatry. “Al Solnit helped put the Child Study Center into the community. As a mentor, he was always accessible and combined both a wise brain and a moral backbone.”
One of the most distinguished scholars in his field, Solnit is particularly known for his work and writings in the field of child development, psychoanalysis and mental health. His work has led him into many consulting positions and roles in education. He held many national posts, including the presidencies of the American Psychoanalytic Association, Association for Child Psychoanalysis, American Academy of Child Psychiatry and the International Association for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Allied Professions. In 1980, he was elected to the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences. An advocate for the health of children, he helped form the National Center for Clinical Infant Programs in Washington, D.C. and for 10 years chaired the advisory council to the commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Children and Youth Services.
“Albert Solnit showed a deep affection and concern for children,” said Yale President Richard C. Levin. “His great contributions to the Yale Child Study Center on behalf of troubled and disadvantaged children will never be forgotten.”
Solnit authored or edited more than 15 books and wrote more than 200 articles and book chapters. He is best known for his books on child custody and placement issues. Of the 20 editorial boards on which Solnit served, his most significant contribution has been his 20 years as managing editor of “The Psychoanalytic Study of the Child,” where his frequent collaborator was the late Anna Freud. Solnit, Freud and the late Joseph Goldstein, a Yale law professor, collaborated on an important series of books on family psychology and the law. One of those books “Beyond the Best Interest of the Child,” served as an influential guide for judges and attorneys in child custody and placement issues. He began a link with the law school, allowing law students to come to the Child Study Center for part of their training. One of those students in the late 1960s was Senator Hillary Clinton.
Solnit brought the insights of child psychoanalysis to understanding children with developmental problems and their families, as well as new ways of providing early, effective intervention for children at risk. As Connecticut’s commissioner of mental health, he continued this process of applying developmental principles to adults as well.
“Even though he was emeritus professor, he came in every day to the Child Study Center,” said Schowalter. “He was here before 6:30 in the morning and would see a couple of patients and then go to his office in Hartford.”
According to Alan Kazdin, director of the Yale Child Study Center, “Dr. Solnit was a monumental figure in child psychiatry whose impact was felt at the level of individual children as well as the children of many nations. He deeply touched those who were fortunate enough to have known him.”
Born in Los Angeles, California, on August 26, 1919, Solnit earned three degrees from the University of California at Berkeley; an undergraduate degree in 1940; a master’s in anatomy in 1942 and his M.D. in 1943. Following a residency in pediatrics and communicable diseases in 1947 and 1948 at the University of California Division of the San Francisco Hospital, Solnit came to New Haven in 1948 as a resident in general psychiatry and was the first child psychiatry resident from 1950 to 1956. He was appointed instructor in psychiatry and pediatrics at the School of Medicine, and joined the staff of the Child Study Center in 1952. Solnit became a full professor in 1964 and was named Sterling Professor in 1970. He retired in 1990.
Solnit is survived by his wife, Martha; sister, June Solnit Sale, an educator in Los Angeles, California; son David, a linguist and technical writer in Berkeley, California; daughter Ruth, an educator in Seattle, Washington; son Ben, an attorney in New Haven; son Aaron, a physician in Bath, New Hampshire and seven grandchildren.
A private funeral service will be held at Temple Mishkan Israel in Hamden, Connecticut. Memorial contributions may be made to the Donald J. Cohen Professor Fund, Yale Child Study Center, 230 South Frontage Rd., P.O. Box 207900, New Haven, CT 06520-7900.