In 1916, Lizzie Pitts Merrill Palmer left a bequest to found the Merrill-Palmer School. She believed that "… the welfare of any community is divinely, and inseparably, dependent upon the quality of its motherhood and the spirit and character of its homes." Mrs. Merrill Palmer thought that training women and men in child development and family functioning would build both the families and communities. Through the insightful leadership of Tracy McGregor, the executor of Mrs. Merrill Palmer's will, the School was organized, found a home in the Freer House, and began operating by 1920.
Edna Noble White, an early pioneer in child development research, was hired by Mr. McGregor in 1919 and served as the first director of the school from 1920 until 1947. Well ahead of her time, Ms. White established the highly innovative model of multidisciplinary training, research and community engagement that informs MPSI to this day.
The Institute's early efforts were aimed at serving Detroit's children through formal academic programs in infant, toddler, child and adolescent development, and in family functioning, for both professionals and parents/caregivers. Over the decades, MPSI trained students from across the nation and around the world, and hosted renowned visiting scientists including Jean Piaget and Margaret Mead. Today graduate research training program at MPSI includes students in social work, developmental and clinical psychology, and neuroscience. MPSI training today also features the world's only dual-title Infant Mental Health program in which students can earn graduate degrees in infant mental health and, education or nursing or social work.
MPSI established a nursery school in 1922, later named the "Child Development Laboratory," as both a training site for its students and a resource for the community, and that served as a model for similar organizations across the country for decades. Today, in collaboration with colleagues in the College of Education, the current Early Childhood Centers on campus remain honored and valued resources, and community anchors of the Woodward Corridor Early Childhood Consortium.
MPSI has a long and respected history of producing ground-breaking research in the area of child development, and in providing training and education to scientists at many levels and in various fields. For example, MPSI researchers played important roles in the emergence of the field of pediatric nutrition (i.e., the work of Icie Macy Hoobler), standardized assessment of child development (i.e., "the Merrill-Palmer Scales"), the concept of "school readiness," and the development of national standards for Head Start programs. Today's MPSI researchers and their collaborators across the university continue to have an impact nationally in areas of infant mental health, adolescent development, developmental neurobiology, prenatal substance exposures, child maltreatment, early childhood education, and more.
In 1981, MPSI was incorporated into Wayne State University as a university-wide research institute within the Office of the Vice President for Research. In 2005, the Merrill Palmer Institute for Child Development was merged with Wayne State's Skillman Center for Children and Families to form the current Merrill Palmer Skillman Institute for Child & Family Development. The vision of the Skillman Center – to promote the well-being of children, especially in urban settings – was perfectly consistent with the mission of the Merrill Palmer Institute and the merger increased MPSI's reach and effectiveness in community outreach and advocacy through the current Healthier Urban Families program.
Today, under Director Peter A. Lichtenberg, MPSI continues to serve as a model of multidisciplinary research, training and community outreach and engagement, and as a leader in child development at Wayne State University, across Detroit and Michigan, and beyond.