Yale News

Edward F. Zigler, Yale Sterling professor emeritus of psychology known as the “Father of Head Start,” passed away last Thursday in his North Haven home. He was 88.

During his prolific career, Zigler transformed the field of developmental psychology and spearheaded groundbreaking social policy, the most famous of which is the Head Start program — a U.S. Department of Health and Human Services program focused on holistic support for low-income American children and their families. Established in 1965, Head Start has served over 35 million American children in its over 50 years of existence.

Zigler’s colleagues reflected on his incredible ability to bridge the scientific and political realms, his groundbreaking research in developmental psychology and his influence on the people around him.

“Dr. Zigler made significant contributions to the idea that the earlier you intervene with children, the more you can get them on the proper developmental track,” said Linda Mayes, professor of child psychiatry, pediatrics and psychology. “He really impacted the field for all of us. Even though I didn’t work directly with him, you just know that his work is important.”

Walter Gilliam, professor of child psychiatry and psychology, said that he did not know anyone else who made as significant an impact on children in America than Zigler. Beyond Head Start, Zigler was also involved with the implementation of the Child Development Associate credential — the most widely recognized credential in early childhood education — and resettlement of the children of Operation Babylift, the mass evacuation of children from South Vietnam to the U.S. and other countries at the end of the Vietnam War.

Although he helped design various programs for children and families, Zigler felt that no program should or could replace parents in providing the services and support that children need. Instead, programs should support parents in their roles as caregivers. Zigler’s belief went against the generally accepted belief at the time that children in poverty or from other cultures should be educated away from their family.

Gilliam said that Zigler’s personal experience as a child of immigrants shaped his vision of Head Start. His family immigrated to America in the late 1920s from Eastern Europe and received help from settlement houses funded by private philanthropists who provided food, shelter, education and health care. He was the first person in his family to go to college and received his Ph.D. in clinical psychology from the University of Texas at Austin in 1958.

After becoming a psychologist, Zigler became an immediate rock star within the field for his innovative research that challenged conventional beliefs. Gilliam pointed to Zigler’s work regarding intellectual disability as one example. Contrary to the popular belief that intellectual disability is largely genetic, Zigler sought to show through his research that it is a product of both environmental and genetic factors. To a large degree, alcohol use during pregnancy, the social input of the caretaker and other actions could cause an infant to test lower on an IQ test than genetically predicted.

Zigler performed similarly cutting-edge research on schizophrenia. His work was not only fascinating academically with clear applications for policy, but it also humanized people with intellectual disabilities. His work attracted President John F. Kennedy’s attention, and he was involved in President Lyndon B. Johnson’s efforts to create a special program that met the needs of children in poverty, which would eventually become Head Start. Zigler was the last living member of the program’s 12-person committee.

“His legacy is not just about his head, but his heart and his hand. He believed in thinking smart and strategically and feeling deeply about something and doing something about it — he made it his life,” Gilliam said. “He just really believed that all of the science he was engaged in was helpful only to the degree that it was actually aimed at improving real-world issues. That was through policy.”

Zigler was an advisor on child and family policy to senior officials in every White House Administration from Johnson to President Barack Obama, regardless of political affiliation, because children, he said, were his politics. That belief in something more important than political affiliation is largely lacking in American politics today, Gilliam said.

Informed by his experience in Washington, Zigler created the Yale Bush Center in Child Development and Social Policy, now named the Yale Zigler Center, in 1978. He felt that it was a shame that experts in child development were unfamiliar with law and policy, and vice versa, and he thought that a university was the perfect place for establishing an interdisciplinary center for pediatrics, psychology, political science, education, journalism, health care and policy. Now, there are over 60 such centers in the U.S.

“Ed Zigler was a giant in the challenging area of translating rigorous basic research into large-scale public policies and effective service,” said Frank Keil, professor of psychology and linguistics. “He was particularly brilliant in his ability to see potential real-world consequences of laboratory studies and in his ability to move seamlessly between the worlds of academia, politics and government agencies.”

Gilliam also pointed to Zigler’s devotion to mentoring students. He said that Zigler used to say that child advocacy work was neither a sprint nor a marathon, but rather a relay race where he passed the baton to other people to run as far as they can for children, too. The urgency that he felt was palpable to everyone around him — and created a feeling to his mentees that children’s futures hinged on what they were doing.

Keil similarly said that he was inspired by Zigler’s passion for both research and service and by his belief in the importance of mentoring others. He said he came to appreciate the enormous challenges that come with scaling up seemingly simple laboratory studies to interventions that might change the lives of millions of children.

In 2013, Zigler fell and underwent surgery at Yale New Haven Hospital. While he was lying on the surgery table, he called to Gilliam and asked him about how the pending reauthorization of Head Start was doing. This action, Gilliam said, demonstrated his concern for the program and his desire to make sure that Gilliam knew what to do in case Zigler failed to make it out of the surgery.

Upon finding out that Zigler was behind Head Start, an anesthesiologist in the room kneeled down next to him and thanked him personally. He, like Zigler, was a child of immigrants and a graduate of the program. He said he believed that his life turned out so much differently than other children in his community because of Head Start. After the surgery, the anesthesiologist continued to check on Zigler’s health.

“Ed couldn’t have possibly known when he created Head Start that 50 years later, he would end up relying on one of its graduates for his own life,” Gillam said.

Gillam recalled Zigler telling him after the surgery, “I didn’t have one problem at all putting my life in the hands of one of my Head Start babies.”

Eui Young Kim | euiyoung.kim@yale.edu

Jessica Pevner | jessica.pevner@yale.edu