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Robert Martin Coles

American psychiatrist and author.

Psychiatrist and author Robert Coles pioneered the use of oral history as a method of studying children. His

Robert Coles (AP/Wide World Photos, Inc. Reproduced with permission.)

five-volume series of books called Children in Crisis, published from 1967-1978, won a Pulitzer Prize in recognition of its wide-ranging examination of children throughout the world and how they cope with war, poverty, and other crises. Trained as a pediatrician as well as a psychiatrist, Coles became a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard University Medical School in 1978. His lifelong interest in children has generated more than 50 books.

Coles was born in 1929 in Boston to parents who encouraged him to read what he has called "spiritually alert" novelists such as Tolstoy and George Eliot. His mother was a lifelong community worker; his father's values were exemplified in his work from the mid-1960s to the mid-1980s as an advocate for poor, elderly residents of Boston. Coles studied medicine and psychiatry in Boston before serving two years as a U.S. Air Force physician. During advanced training in psychoanalysis in New Orleans, Coles reached a turning point. Deeply moved by the sight of a young black girl being heckled by white segregationists, in 1960 Coles began his examination of children and their hopes and fears by studying school desegregation in New Orleans. "History had knocked on the city's door—a city whose people were frightened and divided. Had I not been there, driving by the mobs that heckled six-year-old Ruby Bridges, a black first-grader, as she tried to attend the Frantz School, I might have pursued a different life," Coles writes in the introduction to The Spiritual Life of Children." I had planned until then to enter the profession of psychoanalytic child psychiatry. Instead, I became a 'field worker,' learning to talk with children going through their everyday lives amid substantial social and educational stress."

Traveling from the Deep South to Appalachia, from New Mexico to Alaska, Coles eventually traveled overseas to Europe, Africa, Central and South America, and the Middle East. His wife, Jane, and their three sons began to share in some of the research, as they talked to children of all races and social status about religion, race, poverty, and war. During his career, Coles has written for various medical, psychiatric, and psychoanalytic journals, in addition to seeing patients when possible. He has also volunteered as a tutor in a school for underprivileged children. Besides Children in Crisis, Coles's prominent books include The Moral Life of Children, The Political Life of Children, The Spiritual Life of Children, and Women of Crisis.

Further Reading

Coles, Robert. The Mind's Fate: A Psychiatrist Looks at His Profession. Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1975.

Gordon, Mary. "What They Think About God." The New York Times Book Review, November 25, 1990, p.1+.

Gray, Francine du Plessix. "When We Are Good We Are Very, Very Good." The New York Times Book Review, November 21, 1993, p. 9.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists