Robert Coles (psychiatrist)

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Robert Coles (born October 12, 1929) is an American author, child psychiatrist, and professor emeritus at Harvard University.


Early life, education, and military service

Born Martin Robert Coles in Boston, Massachusetts, on October 12, 1929, to Philip Coles, an immigrant from Leeds, England, United Kingdom, and Sandra Young Coles, originally from Sioux City, Iowa. Robert Coles attended Boston Latin School where he played tennis, ran track, and edited the school literary magazine. He entered Harvard College in 1946, where he studied English literature and helped to edit the undergraduate literary magazine, The Harvard Advocate. He graduated magna cum laude and earned Phi Beta Kappa honors in 1950.

Coles originally intended to become a teacher or professor, but as part of his senior honors thesis, he interviewed the poet and physician William Carlos Williams, who promptly persuaded him to go into medicine. He studied medicine at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, graduating in 1954. After residency training at the University of Chicago in Chicago, Illinois (the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Medicine), Coles moved on to psychiatric residencies at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, and McLean Hospital in Belmont, Massachusetts (the two hospitals are affiliates of Harvard University and the Harvard University Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts).

Knowing that he was to be called into the U.S. Armed Forces under the Doctor Draft, Coles joined the Air Force in 1958 and was assigned the rank of captain. His field of specialization was psychiatry, his intention eventually to sub-specialize in child psychiatry. He served as chief of neuropsychiatric services at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, and was honorably discharged in 1960. He returned to Boston and finished his child psychiatry training at the Children's Hospital. In July 1960, he was married to Jane Hollowell, [1] and the couple moved to New Orleans.

Ruby Bridges

In New Orleans, Coles witnessed 6-year-old Ruby Bridges, protected by U.S. Federal marshals, "walking through a screaming mob to integrate a public school." [2] He volunteered to support and counsel Ruby and her family during this difficult period. [3] Coles wrote a series of articles for The Atlantic Monthly on Ruby and other black children, who, along with their white classmates and their families, were targets of daily public protests, intimidation, and even death threats during the desegration of public schools in New Orleans. [4] [5] These articles led to his first book, Children of Crisis: A Study of Courage and Fear, and ultimately to his decision to develop that book into a series of books documenting how children and their parents deal with profound change, a series that won him the Pulitzer prize in 1973. In 1995 he returned to his original material and wrote The Story of Ruby Bridges, a popular children's book, published by Scholastic Corporation.


In addition to working with children in New Orleans and Atlanta, Coles wrote non-technical articles for a number of national publications, including The Atlantic Monthly , The New Republic , Saturday Review , and The Times of London . By 1969, Coles wrote in-depth profiles for The New Yorker and contributed regular columns to The New Republic, New Oxford Review , America , and the American Poetry Review .

At the urging of Erik Erikson, in 1963 Coles became affiliated with the University Health Services at Harvard as a research psychiatrist. Gradually, he began teaching in the Harvard Medical School, eventually becoming Professor of Psychiatry and Medical Humanities in 1977. He taught courses in various schools across Harvard University, including the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, [6] the Business School, the Law School, the Extension School, and the School of Education, where in 1995 he was given a newly established position as James Agee Professor of Social Ethics. He came to teach courses not only in the moral, spiritual, and social sensibilities of children but also in those phenomena generally, especially as expressed in stories, both literary fictions and oral narratives, and as affected by conditions of poverty and social injustice. As a longtime professor, Coles has influenced generations of Harvard undergraduates and graduate students. [7] In 2007, Harvard University named an annual Call of Service lecture in honor of Coles.

His work has been recognized with numerous awards, including election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1971, a Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1973 for his series of books Children of Crisis , a MacArthur Award in 1981, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, and the National Humanities Medal in 2001. He later co-founded the magazine DoubleTake, which documented the lives of ordinary people with photographs, articles, essays, poetry, and short stories. The magazine won several awards, including the 1998 National Magazine Award for Editorial Excellence in the category of General Excellence.

Many of Coles' works draw heavily on quoted conversations with ordinary people, as well as insights from prominent thinkers and leaders — often people Coles has encountered personally in his career — such as William Carlos Williams, Dorothy Day, Walker Percy, William Shawn, Anna Freud, Paul Tillich, Erik Erikson, and Robert F. Kennedy. Starting with the Children of Crisis series, Coles's approach to his subjects involves a difficult balancing act at the heart of the documentary enterprise. His methods combine techniques of participant observation (tape recordings, field notes, drawings, etc.), clinical interpretation, academic social research, and literary narrative. Coles has never been diffident about the economic, social, and racial injustices he has observed in the field. He is a spokesperson for his subjects, a sounding board for their public voices. Coles describes his own literary methods and goals as an effort "to blend poetic insight with a craft and unite ultimately the rational and the intuitive, the aloof stance of the scholar with the passion and affection of the friend who cares and is moved." (The Mind's Fate, p. 10)

In a 2003 review of Coles' book on musician Bruce Springsteen, [8] music critic David Hajdu questioned the truthfulness and accuracy of Coles's reports of the opinions on Springsteen held by various people, suggesting that some source quotations may have been fabricated:

The fact that William Carlos Williams and Walker Percy had such extensive conversations with Robert Coles on the subjects of the New Jersey pop singers Frank Sinatra and Bruce Springsteen and that those discussions yielded insights so parallel and neatly suited to Coles's own take on Springsteen is incredible--utterly incredible. I was not there to overhear them, of course, and it is impossible to check with Williams and Percy, or with the late Erikson and Shawn, whom Coles's other deceased sources quotes in his book's opening sections. But I did ask Will Percy about the comments on Springsteen that Coles attributes to his uncle, and he called them "outrageous". Walker Percy "definitely didn't talk like that", according to his nephew.

While "the facts of his subjects' lives are indisputable," one Coles' scholar cautions that "some distortion is perhaps inevitable given Coles' method and purposes and expectations of his readers. The portraits are not written as true documentary accounts of the lives of his subjects but are presented as composite views of many [subjects] designed to highlight certain features of American social life neglected in other accounts of the poor. And if they are not true, neither are they false. In some respects . . . they have the status of fiction based very firmly on the transcription of life. They examine the range of human possibility beyond category and social stereotype. . . ." (Steven Weiland, Intellectual Craftsmen: Ways and Works in American Scholarship, New Jersey: Transactions Publishers (1991): 86; and Handing One Another Along Literature and Social Reflection, 2010.)

Coles authored more than eighty books and 1300 articles, nearly all of them centrally concerned with human moral, spiritual, and social sensibility and reasoning, mainly in children but also in adults, writers especially, [9] including the novelist Walker Percy (who dedicated his final novel, The Thanatos Syndrome, to Coles), the poet William Carlos Williams, writer James Agee, novelist Flannery O'Connor, and others, such as Dorothy Day, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Simone Weil, and Dorothy Lange. [10]

Personal life

In 1960, Coles married Jane Erin Hallowell, a graduate of Radcliffe College and a high school teacher of English and history. [1] They had three sons. [11] Coles and Hallowell Coles co-authored the 1978 book Women of Crisis: Lives of struggle and hope.




  1. 1 2 "Jane Hallowell is Wed to Dr. Martin R. Coles!". The New York Times . July 5, 1960. Retrieved November 15, 2020.
  2. Judson, George (September 1, 1995). "Child of Courage Joins Her Biographer". The New York Times . Retrieved November 15, 2020.
  3. Bennett, Lennie (April 22, 2015). "Civil rights icon Ruby Bridges Hall discusses Norman Rockwell's famous painting". Tampa Bay Times. Retrieved November 15, 2020.
  4. Rothenberg Gritz, Jennie (January 19, 2014). "How Kids Dealt With the Stress of Desegregation". The Atlantic . Retrieved November 15, 2020.
  5. Coles, Robert (March 1, 1963). "In the South These Children Prophesy". The Atlantic . Retrieved November 15, 2020.
  6. Epstein, Sonia F.; Lestage, Chloë F. (March 14, 2019). "The Literature Class Bigger Than CS50". The Crimson . Retrieved November 15, 2020.
  7. "Robert Coles Wins Medal of Freedom." William J. Cromie. The Harvard University Gazette. January 15, 1998. Accessed March 14, 2010.
  8. " Hajdu D. "Tramps Like Who? The New Republic Dec. 15, 2003
  9. "Biographical Sketch of Robert Coles, Dale Richmond Award Winner" by William Coleman, M.D. FAAP, Chapel Hill, NC. Developmental and Behavioral News. Volume 7, Number 1, Fall 1998. from the Web site "American Academy of Pediatrics Section on Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics" accessed March 14, 2010.
  10. Lives We Carry With Us: Profiles of Moral Courage by Robert Coles. New York: The New Press, 2010.
  11. "Alumni presented with Harvard Medal on Commencement". The Harvard Gazette. May 17, 2018. Retrieved November 15, 2020.
  12. "The 1973 Pulitzer Prize Winner in General Nonfiction". The Pulitzer Prizes . Retrieved November 15, 2020.
  13. "Clinton Honors 15 With Presidentials Medals". CNN . January 15, 1998. Retrieved November 15, 2020.
  14. Alexakis, Georgia N. (January 12, 1998). "Coles to Receive Highest U.S. Civilian Honor". The Crimson . Retrieved November 15, 2020.

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