A memorial service for child psychiatry pioneer Albert Solnit — who served as director of Yale’s Child Study Center for nearly 20 years — packed Battell Chapel Saturday afternoon with students, colleagues, patients and friends, including U.S. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Solnit, who died June 21 at the age of 82, spent more than 50 years at the University and nine as commissioner of the Connecticut State Department of Mental Health. He was well known for his efforts in making children’s needs the focus of family law and custody disputes.
But at Saturday’s service, speakers did not concentrate on Solnit’s role as one of the most distinguished scholars in his field, emphasizing instead the compassion he brought to that role.
“[He was] a man with a big, inclusive heart — a gentle, generous and gifted man who never forgot about the individual,” Clinton said in her speech. “For hundreds of students and colleagues and friends and patients, he was in some sense the psychological parent.”
Clinton, who as a law student in the late 1960s trained at the Center as part of her legal studies, also recalled Solnit’s sense of humor.
“He could not only enjoy the lighter side and the more absurd side of life, but he could laugh at himself,” she said after the service. “Yale was a better place because of his being here all these years.”
Clinton was one of 10 people — along with the executive director of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, a former juvenile court judge, and one of Solnit’s patients — selected to participate Saturday in commemorating Solnit’s life and work. Afterward, she recalled his impact on her own life as a lawyer, politician and parent.
“He had a lot of influence on the work I’ve done in trying to change public policy, most recently during the White House years, to try to change the foster care and adoption systems,” she said. “It certainly had an impact on how I’ve tried to be a parent, I hope — [though] you’ll have to ask my daughter.”
Other speakers emphasized both Solnit’s legacy in the field of psychiatry and his compassionate personality, calling him a “sage,” “mentor,” “visionary,” and “legend.”
“He was renowned for his legendary humanity and compassion,” Yale President Richard Levin said. “He set the standard for what we aspire to be as a university.”
Phyllis Rose, a Wesleyan University English professor and one of Solnit’s former patients, thanked Solnit for the generosity she said he displayed in his role as therapist.
“I want to believe that Dr. Solnit benefited from the part of his life that he selflessly devoted to his patients,” Rose said.
Others spoke of Solnit’s professional life and his legacy in the field of family law.
Child psychiatry professor John Schowalter discussed Solnit’s efforts in calling attention to the inadequacies of the juvenile justice system.
“His field was children and he knew that children by nature [are] at the beck and call of adults, but he made it his life goal that children received the extra consideration that underdogs deserve,” Schowalter said.
Solnit’s books on child custody laws, “Beyond the Best Interests of the Child,” “Before the Best Interests of the Child” and “In the Best Interests of the Child,” have been cited in more than 1,000 appeals cases involving child custody, according to The New York Times.
But at Solnit’s memorial service, speakers — even when praising his work — remained focused on the personal qualities that he exhibited in his professional life.
“He was a leader who was easy to follow,” said Peter Neubauer, a clinical professor of psychiatry at New York University’s School of Medicine. “He did not impose power, but he empowered others.”