Babies and children, families and communities do the research on what it takes for them to flourish. Listen with us to what they’ve been learning. Watch a webinar. Check out the Indigenous Early Learning Collaborative. Join the Brazelton Touchpoints Center Learning Network. Join the conversation.
August 15, 2023
By Lise Johnson, MD
Development needs relationship. This is a central theme at the Brazelton Institute, and for its founder, Dr. Kevin Nugent, this is not just an academic concept, but a way of being and a way of leading. There are ideas, and then there are the persons and the relationships behind them. In Kevin’s narrative, core infant mental health theory is suffused with characters and stories, full of personality and circumstance that inform the resultant academic work. As champion and steward of the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (NBAS) and lead developer and innovator of the Newborn Behavioral Observations System (NBO), Kevin has built an admirable legacy of his own work. Of equal note, he has cultivated a multidisciplinary, multicultural, international community in which he gives equal attention to young students and tenured professors, shares in individual joys and sorrows, and creates a unique culture of safety and challenge that nurtures generative thinking.
The oldest of five children raised in a family in Mullingar, Ireland, Kevin traces his fascination with the newborn to his own experience as an 11-year-old boy caring for his infant brother in the wake of their mother’s untimely death. Almost 70 years later, Kevin still recalls the gift of hope in a landscape of loss that his tiny brother brought to him and their grieving family.
After completing Columban seminary studies, Kevin spent his first career years in the Philippines as a Catholic priest. Eventually recognizing that his path lay outside of the ministry, he returned to university, earning a BA and PhD in psychology at Boston College. His academic homes over the following decades were both in the Department of Children, Families & Schools at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst—where he now holds the title Professor Emeritus—and in the Division of Developmental Medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital, where his beginnings as a student of Berry Brazelton and the Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale (NBAS) in the late 1970s would lead him to eventually found and direct the Brazelton Center for Infants and Parents in 1995, renamed the Brazelton Institute in 1998.
This summer, a confluence of events made for the perfect moment to celebrate this remarkable man: the 50th anniversary of the NBAS, the first post-pandemic World Association for Infant Mental Health (WAIMH) Congress convening which took place in Dublin (a mere 50 miles from Kevin’s birthplace of Mullingar), Kevin’s 80th birthday earlier in the year, and his progression in July 2022 to Director Emeritus at the Brazelton Institute. On July 14, over 100 colleagues, friends, and family members gathered to honor Kevin at the historic Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin. Extra reception rooms needed to be hired to accommodate the swelling numbers, and many more contributed to a tribute video compiling messages of gratitude, admiration, and love—the same sentiments that were etched into a commemorative Simon Pearce bowl presented to mark the occasion.
On the following day, Kevin delivered the opening plenary address to over a thousand WAIMH attendees, titled “Perinatal Mental Health: A Time of Uncertainty Where Hope and Happiness Can Meet.” Perhaps it isn’t surprising that this relationship-based scholar chose to communicate with the audience in both the science of psychology and the art of Irish literature. Kevin turned to the latter to express those profound truths that transcend scientific discourse—from James Joyce’s stream of consciousness that transports us into the infant’s mind in Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man to Seamus Heaney’s commentary on the human condition and celebration of birth in Cure at Troy. This breathtaking lecture brought the auditorium to its feet in a standing ovation.
Though the summer brought a chance to celebrate Kevin and his career, it by no means marks a full retirement. He continues at the Brazelton Institute as a wise and generous mentor, advisor, and thought leader. Most importantly, he remains for me and so many others, a treasured friend. I will conclude with words of William Butler Yeats that express the sentiments of many who know Kevin and that he himself has quoted on more than one occasion, “Think where man’s glory most begins and ends, and say my glory was I had such friends.”