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Date: 2016-09-26
Title: Dr. Chester Pierce Passes Away

Chester Pierce, the namesake and the inspiration behind the MGH Chester M. Pierce, MD Division of Global Psychiatry, passed away last week. He was 89 years old.

Dr. Pierce was Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and Emeritus Professor of Education at the Harvard College of Arts and Sciences. He also had the distinction of being the first African American full professor at Massachusetts General Hospital. Dr. Pierce lived a “larger than life” life and had done so with a degree of humility rarely seen. His accomplishments and stature, vision and creativity, range and depth of experience and enormous modesty continues to capture the imagination of several generations of physicians.

Chester M. Pierce was born in Glen Cove, New York on March 4, 1927. He received his undergraduate degree from Harvard College in 1948 and his medical degree from Harvard Medical School in 1952 and then trained in psychiatry at the University of Cincinnati. Right after residency training he served in the United States Navy from 1954-1956 and was on active duty as a neuropsychiatrist at the Great Lakes Naval Station in Illinois. He retired with the rank of Commander in the US Navy Reserve. In 1969 he became a Professor of Psychiatry in the Faculty of Medicine at Harvard University and a Professor of Education in the Graduate School of Education at Harvard University. In the same year, he was appointed chair of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Black Psychiatrists of America, after he and others lobbied to widen opportunities for black psychiatrists in leadership positions.

Dr. Pierce is possibly best known for his important research on the effects of racism. He first proposed the concept of racial “micro-aggressions” in 1970. A micro-aggression usually involves “demeaning implications and other subtle insults against minorities.” This work has had tremendous influence on psychologists and psychiatrists. The Director of the Chester M. Pierce Division of Global Psychiatry, Dr. Gregory Fricchione says, “This research is of great importance because it is becoming increasingly clear that micro-aggressions may represent a significant source of stress endured by those in racial and ethnic minorities and that the accumulation of stress and possible transcriptome changes may contribute to allostatic loading and the future development of chronic stress related non-communicable diseases like cardiac disease and diabetes. It is clear that Dr. Pierce’s seminal work on racial micro-aggressions lies at the heart of the interrelationship of human rights and human health.” In 2015, Dr. Pierce was the recipient of the American Psychiatric Association’s Human Rights Award for his humanitarian efforts.

Dr. Pierce was a natural born leader as well. He eventually rose to be the president of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and of the American Orthopsychiatric Association. He was also the founding president of the Black Psychiatrists of America and was named chairperson of the Child Development Associate consortium. He was a member of both the Institute of Medicine at the National Academy of Sciences and of the American Academy of Arts and Science.

Dr. Dave Henderson, the Chief of Psychiatry at Boston Medical Center (BMC), reflects on Dr. Pierce’s influence, “Chet is someone who will live forever in the hearts and minds of generations to come. While his impact locally, nationally, and globally is immeasurable, I encounter evidence of it on a daily basis. For example, just two weeks ago I met with our new class of Multicultural Psychology Interns at BMC. During the discussion, several mentioned interest in or were conducting research on micro-aggression. When I asked them who was the first to describe this concept of micro-aggression, they all gave Chet’s name and had read all of his writings on the topic, many from 40-50 years ago. You should have seen their faces when I took them to the conference room attached to my office, which has a painting of Chet hanging on the wall (a replica of a portrait commissioned by Harvard University). They could not believe that I knew Chet; I think I scored some points that day!”

Dr. Fricchione adds, “There is no one who more seamlessly combined talent and accomplishment with humility and modesty and generosity. He was a visionary leader and the field of psychiatry still benefits from his insights and admonitions. The world is a better place for having had Chester M. Pierce, MD in it, and we are better people for having crossed paths with him.”