Born in Glen Cove, New York on March 4, 1927, Pierce received his undergraduate degree from Harvard College in 1948 and his medical doctorate from Harvard Medical School in 1952. As an undergraduate, he was an outstanding athlete, and played on the Harvard College football, basketball and lacrosse teams. In 1947, the Harvard football team played an away game at the University of Virginia, which was an all-white University at the time. Dr. Pierce became the first black college football player to play a game below the Mason Dixon line (Read story here).
Following medical school, Dr. Pierce trained in psychiatry in Cincinati. While he held faculty positions at several institutions, the majority of his career was spent at Massachusetts General Hospital. He has had an amazing academic career, publishing more than 180 books, articles, and reviews. He wrote about the psychological effects of extreme environments, even doing some research on the latter while in the Navy. (By the way, he held the rank of Commander in the US Navy.) He also wrote about the effects of racism, first proposing the concept of racial microagressions in the 1970. Microagression usually involves “demeaning implications and other subtle insults against minorities”. He described these subtle nonverbal exchanges as ‘put-downs’ of blacks by offenders and suggested they may also play a role in unfairness in the legal system as microaggressions can influence the decisions of juries. The concept has since been expanded by other psychologists as is noted in this post on the American Psychological Association website.
In addition to academia, Dr. Pierce spent his time developing the art of psychiatry and building infrastructure to help propel the specialty to new heights. He is the founding president of the Black Psychiatrists of America, and past-president of the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology and the American Orthopsychiatric Association. He has served on 22 editorial boards, was senior consultant to the Surgeon General of the US Air Force, and advisor to the Children's Television Network (Sesame Street, Electric Company) and the US Arctic Research Commission.
He is an amazing scholar who spent 41 years on the Harvard faculty. To honor this living legend, Massachusetts General Hospital named its global psychiatry division in Pierce’s honor. The Chester M. Pierce, MD Division of Global Psychiatry was one of the first programs for global mental health in an academic medical center. The program was started by Dr. Pierce and one of his colleagues. In 2010, the Harvard Foundation unveiled a new portrait of him in the Junior Common Room of Lowell House, Pierce’s residence hall while a student- an honor few professionals of color have garned (see Harvard Magazine article).
Dr. Pierce has had many more professional and person accomplishments that are too vast to enumerate here. If you would like to read more about him, please consider the oral history by Ezra Griffen entitled “Race & Excellence: My dialogue With Chester Pierce” - reviewed here.