Stearns, Albert Warren

Albert Warren Stearns
Albert Warren Stearns

Albert Warren Stearns (January 26, 1885-September 24, 1959) was a medical doctor who did pioneering work in the fields of psychiatry and neurology. He also served as Commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, was Dean of the Tufts College Medical School, taught sociology, and was active in his local community.

Born in Billerica, Massachusetts, he was the tenth generation of Stearns to live there. His parents were Helen Maria (Proctor) and George Edwin Stearns. While his given name was Albert Warren, he preferred to be called Warren. He grew up and lived most of his life in Billerica where he attended the public schools and worshipped at the First Parish (Unitarian) Church.

Stearns dropped out of high school before graduation to clerk in a hardware store. After a chance conversation with a Tufts College staff member, he decided to enroll at Tufts in nearby Medford, Massachusetts. He arrived in the fall of 1905, driving a horse-drawn carriage loaded with furniture and clothing. He continued to work during college, earning money for school as a hotel night watchman, drug store clerk, and laborer.

After a year of study in the College of Arts he decided his interest was medicine, so he transferred to the Tufts Medical School in Boston. During his medical studies he showed a partiality to the new fields of neurology and psychiatry. After graduating with an M.D. in 1910, Stearns continued his study of psychiatry with a one year residency at the Danvers State Hospital. The following year he worked at the Boston State Hospital and started teaching at the Tufts Medical School as an assistant in the neurology department. He opened a private practice in neurology and psychiatry in 1913.

Stearns and Frances (Fanny) Matsell Judkins were married on December 28, 1912, by Lyman V. Rutledge, pastor of First Parish (Unitarian) Church of Billerica. The Stearns had two boys: One grew up to teach geology at Tufts and later was dean of its College of Liberal Arts; the other died at the start of his medical career. The grief Stearns experienced at his son’s death increased his
understanding of human sorrow and helped to make him a more effective psychiatrist.

During the First World War, Stearns joined the U.S. Navy and served as a first lieutenant in the Navy Medical Corps, 1917-19. Later he served as a consultant to the U.S. Naval Hospital, Chelsea, Massachusetts, 1923-29. During the Second World War, he served in the Navy Medical Corps, 1942-45.

Stearns headed the neurology service at the Boston Dispensary, 1921-45 and was a professor of psychiatry and the dean of the medical school at Tufts, 1927-45. As dean, Stearns worked with the board of trustees and Tufts College President John Albert Cousins to resolve a number of serious problems. While the medical school had a strong student base, it lacked sufficient financing, personal, and equipment. As a result, in 1935, it was on the verge of losing its Class A standing with the American Medical Association.

The school eventually joined with the Boston Dispensary and the Boston Floating Hospital to established The New England Medical Center. The medical school also reorganized and improved its library; labs; physiology, pathology and bacteriology departments; and created new departments of psychiatry and preventive medicine.

Admission rules were stiffened; applications were limited to students with undergraduate degrees from approved premedical programs and the size of the entering class was lowered to 100 students. Stearns also reorganized the School’s alumni association and established the Tufts Medical News and the Tufts Medical Journal. These changes greatly improved the condition of the school but much remained to be done after Stearns retired in 1945, especially regarding finances.

In addition to his duties at Tufts, Stearns served as commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Corrections, 1929-1933. His national reputation in criminology and psychiatry kept him in demand to assist the courts and prosecutors – officially and unofficially – in criminal trials including those of Sacco and Vanzetti in Massachusetts and Leopold and Loeb in Chicago, Illinois.

During his term as commissioner he oversaw the building of the 300 inmate Billerica House of Correction, a progressive facility that included a farm where prisoners could spend time exercising out-of-doors while learning new skills. Two years after he resigned as corrections commissioner he was appointed associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Mental Diseases, where he served from 1935 to 1938.

Stearns was a Life Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association; a member of the American Medical Association; a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; President of the Boston Society of Psychiatry and Neurology, 1934; and Vice-President of the American Medical Society, 1938-40.

Throughout his career he reported his research findings through articles in professional journals, including; The Journal of American Psychiatry, Journal of Abnormal Psychology, Proceedings of the American Prison Association, Journal of the American Medical Association, Military Surgeon, The Journal of Nervous and Mental Diseases, and the American Journal of Sociology. Beacon Press published his book, The Personality of Criminals, 1932.

Stearns, a prominent psychiatrist during the first half of the 20th century, had little use for Sigmund Freud and his theories. He insisted, to his colleagues, that Freud had been “oversold” and that some of those using his methods had both an inadequate understanding of Freud’s concepts and little experience using them.

Students regarded him as an excellent instructor and a warm and sincere friend. His personality, declared one, “saw and expressed the better views on given topics.” They admired him for his values and traits of, “punctuality, thoroughness, truth, tolerance, attentiveness, decisiveness.” His wife declared that his fault, if it was one, was that he spoke too much. He agreed, but never changed. For years, students honored Stearns, who was know as “the Sage of Billerica,” with an annual dinner.

He had a deep affection for his town and its Unitarian Church, the First Parish. Stearns considered himself an “antiquarian” – a lover of old homes and area history. He was president of the Billerica Historical Society, 1913-58; cemetery commissioner, 1922-35; selectmen, 1930-31 and 1933-36; and a member of the School Committee, 1946-48. In addition, he often served as town moderator.

For Stearns and his wife Fanny, the Unitarian Church was central to their religious life. She was involved in church school activities and the work of the Alliance of Unitarian Women while he served on the parish and property committees. He knew its history well, often wrote on aspects of it, but never attempted – as many wished – to write its complete story. Stearns described his Unitarian views as “emancipated” from religious superstition and free of any belief in a life beyond the present one.

In recognition of his service to his country, state, and local community – and to the scholarly world – Tufts awarded him an honorary Doctor of Science degree in 1943. The citation read in part, “You are largely responsible for the effective development of Tufts’ program of training modern scientifically minded practitioners of medicine for all New England.”

He resumed his private psychiatric practice after the war.
Returning to Tufts in 1945, he resigned as Dean of the Medical School and was appointed professor and chair of the sociology department. He served in this capacity until his retirement from Tufts in 1955. In 1947 he added to his duties the responsibility of medical director of the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Bridgewater. He continued these activities after he stopped teaching.

Retirement allowed him more time and energy to attend to his multiple hobbies. These included his garden and apiary. A friend observed that “he would gaze at growing things, as if they were patients and he had a kindly love of both.” Stearns always enjoyed animals, mountain climbing, trees, wild flowers – and a special “secluded spot beside the Concord River.”

Warren Stearns died unexpectedly in his sleep in 1959. A funeral service, attended by nearly five hundred people, was held at First Parish. The town’s next annual report described him as a “Beloved well-known citizen.” In 1962 Tufts established the A. Warren Stearns Medical Research Laboratories at its medical-dental complex in Boston.

The Tufts University Digital Collections and Archives holds A. Warren Stearns patient records and research papers. For biographical data see Peter B. Hagopian, “In Memoriam: Albert Warren Stearns: 1885-1959,” American Journal Psychiatry, (1960) and the eulogy by the Rev. Charles Stephen, Jr., “A. Warren Stearns 1885-1959.”

For his years at Tufts, see Russell E. Miller, Light on the Hill A History of Tufts College 1852-1952 (1966); Benjamin Specter, A History of Tufts College Medical School (1943); Henry Banks, A Century of Excellence: the History of Tufts University School of Medicine, 1893-1993 (1993;) and the Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History on the Internet. Obituaries are in the Boston Herald, Boston Globe, and New York Times.

Article by Alan Seaburg
Posted November 27, 2011