Robert Martin Coles is a leading authority on the lives of the socially and economically deprived, especially children; he has also produced a substantial body of literary criticism and biography, directed not at fellow academics but at the general reader. He was born to Philip Winston, a politically conservative engineer who was trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Sandra Young Coles, a deeply religious woman who both praised his accomplishments and warned against pride and self-centeredness. Coles’s excellent education and training began in the prestigious Boston Latin School and continued at Harvard University, where he was a Phi Beta Kappa English major in 1950. He took his M.D. degree in 1952 at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons. Coles also enrolled in courses at Union Theological Seminary during this period. Between 1955 and 1958 he continued his medical studies at the University of Chicago and in Boston hospitals. Following his service in the military, he continued his training with residences and fellowships in psychiatry.
It was during his service in the Air Force that Coles’s career took a decisive turn. He was stationed in Biloxi, Mississippi, as chief of neuropsychiatric services at Keesler Hospital and saw the early efforts at integration in the Deep South. This experience, about which he subsequently wrote often, made an indelible impression on him. When his period of service was over he established a practice in Vinings, Georgia, where he regularly called on black and white families undergoing difficulties because of integration. Coles decided to concentrate his professional work on studying the “children of crisis.” He also became an active member of the Civil Rights movement. He spent eight years collecting data and writing the first volume of Children of Crisis, which appeared in 1967.
The method he created for this and subsequent studies is called “social psychiatry,” which employs techniques of oral history, psychology, and anthropology. Coles frequently gains an understanding of children’s inner worlds by studying their drawings, examples of which he...
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