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John Bowlby

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John Bowlby (February 26, 1907 – September 2, 1990) was a British psychoanalyst, notable for his interest in child development and his pioneering work in attachment theory.



John Bowlby was born in London to an upper-middle-class family. He was the fourth of six children and was raised by a nanny in traditional British fashion of his class. His father, Sir Anthony Bowlby, was surgeon to the King's Household, but with a tragic history; at age five, his own father (John's grandfather) had been killed while serving as a war correspondent in the Anglo-Chinese Opium War. Normally, John saw his mother only one hour a day after teatime, though during the summer she was more available. Like many other mothers of her social class, she considered that parental attention and affection would lead to dangerous spoiling. When Bowlby was almost four years old, his beloved nanny, who was actually his primary caretaker in his early years, left the family. Later, he was to describe this separation as being as tragic as the loss of a mother.

At the age of seven, he was sent off to boarding school, as was common for boys of his social status. His later work, for example Separation: Anxiety and Anger, revealed that he regarded it as a terrible time for him. Because of such experiences as a child, he displayed an unusual sensitivity to children’s suffering throughout his life.


John Bowlby’s intellectual career began at Trinity College, University of Cambridge, where he studied psychology and pre-clinical sciences. He won prizes for outstanding intellectual performance. After Cambridge he took some time to work with maladjusted and delinquent children, then at the age of twenty-two enrolled at University College Hospital in London. At the age of twenty-six he qualified in medicine. While still in medical school he also found time to enroll himself in the Institute for Psychoanalysis. Following medical school, he trained in adult psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital. In 1937, he qualified as a psychoanalyst, and he became president of Trinity College in 1938.

During World War II, he was a Lieutenant Colonel, RAMC. After the war, he was Deputy Director of the Tavistock Clinic, and from 1950, Mental Health Consultant to the World Health Organisation.

Because of his previous work with maladapted and delinquent children, he became interested in the development of children and began work at the Child Guidance Clinic in London. This interest was probably increased by a variety of wartime events involving separation of young children from familiar people; these included the rescue of Jewish children by the Kindertransport arrangements, the evacuation of children from London to keep them safe from air raids, and the use of group nurseries to allow mothers of young children to contribute to the war effort. [1]

Bowlby was interested in finding out the actual patterns of family interaction involved in both healthy and pathological development. He focused on how attachment difficulties were transmitted from one generation to the next. The three most important experiences for Bowlby’s future work and the development of attachment theory were his work with:

  • Maladapted and delinquent children.
  • James Robertson (in 1952) in making the documentary film ‘A Two-Year Old Goes to the Hospital’, which was one of the films about ”young children in brief separation“. The documentary illustrated the impact of loss and suffering experienced by young children separated from their primary caretakers.
  • Melanie Klein during his psychoanalytic training. She was his supervisor, however they had different views about the role of the mother in the treatment of a three-year-old boy. Specifically and importantly, Klein stressed the role of the child's fantasies about his mother, and Bowlby emphasized the actual history of the relationship.

'Maternal Deprivation' controversy

Main article: Maternal deprivation

  While working for the World Health Organization in 1951[2] Bowlby produced 'Maternal Care and Mental Health' in which he expounded the theory of 'Maternal Deprivation'. By a mechanism that Bowlby saw as very similar to imprinting, which he called 'monotropy', Bowlby described the process by which the young infant developed a firm attachment or bond to its mother in the second six months of life. The breaking of this attachment by abrupt, long-term separation during the toddler period would cause serious consequences, according to Bowlby.

Although this work had popular appeal that still finds resonance today, there was a great deal of professional disquiet at the time, for example, Wootton discussed the absence of evidence for the claim that the effects were irreversible[3]. As a result of these criticisms the WHO felt obliged to publish a rebuttal entitled, 'Deprivation of maternal care. A reassessment of its effects' (1962)[4]. Professor Sir Michael Rutter in 'Maternal Deprivation Reassessed' (1972)[5], which New Society described as a, 'classic in the field of child care', showed that children are not invariably so damaged and that, in any event, other people, including their fathers, are also very important to children. According to Schaffer in 'Social Development' (2000)[6] it seems likely that social convention explains whatever parenting differences are observed and that when fathers assume the principal responsibility for their children such differences disappear.

It was in the light of such research evidence that Bowlby adapted the original idea of 'Maternal Deprivation' and developed the attachment theory. In his view, attachment behavior was an evolutionary survival strategy for protecting the infant from predators, and attachment theory reflects that. Mary Ainsworth, a student of Bowlby’s, further extended and tested his ideas, and in fact played the primary role in suggesting that several attachment styles existed.


Main article: Attachment theory

Attachment theory is highly regarded as a well-researched explanation of infant and toddler behavior and in the field of infant mental health. It is hard to imagine any clinical work with an infant or toddler that is not about attachment, since dealing with that issue has been shown to be an essential developmental task for that age period.

Following Bowlby‘s leads, a few established child-development researchers and others have suggested developmentally appropriate mental health interventions to sensitively foster emotional relationships between young children and adults. These approaches used tested techniques which were not only congruent with attachment theory, but with other established principles of child development. In addition, nearly all mainstream approaches for the prevention and treatment of disorders of attachment use attachment theory. Treatment and prevention programs include Alicia Lieberman ("Parent-child Psychotherapy"), Stanley Greenspan ("Floor Time"), Mary Dozier (autonomous states of mind), Robert Marvin ("Circle of Security"), Daniel Schechter (intergenerational communication of trauma), and Joy Osofsky ("Safe Start Initiative").

Some clinicians have claimed Bowlby's theory as a basis for controversial interventions popularly known as attachment therapy, but such claims have not had wide confirmation from theoreticians and the interventions themselves have been criticized as not meeting generally accepted standards of research or practice by professionals.[7][8]


He died September 2, 1990 at his summer home in Isle of Skye, Scotland. He had married Ursula Longstaff, herself the daughter of a surgeon, on April 16, 1938, and they had four children, including (Sir) Richard Bowlby, who succeeded his uncle as third Baronet and has in recent years been supportive of interest in his father's work, in which he has, however, no professional training.


  1. ^ Mercer, J. (2006). 'Understanding attachment.' Westport,CT:Praeger.
  2. ^ Bowlby, J (1951) Maternal Care and Mental Health, World Health Organisation WHO
  3. ^ Wootton, B. (1959).'Social science and social pathology'. London: Allen and Unwin
  4. ^ Ainsworth, M (1962) Deprivation of maternal care. A reassessment of its effects, World Health Organisation WHO
  5. ^ Rutter (1981) Maternal Deprivation Reassessed, Second edition, Harmondsworth, Penguin.
  6. ^ Schaffer (2000) Social Development, Oxford, Blackwell
  7. ^ O'Connor TG; Zeanah CH (eds) (Sep 2003). Special Issue: Current perspectives on assessment and treatment of attachment disorders. Attachment & Human Development 5 (3): 219-326. ISSN 1469-2988.
  8. ^ Chaffin M; et al (Feb 2006). Report of the APSAC Task Force on Attachment Therapy, Reactive Attachment Disorder, and Attachment Problems. Child Maltreatment 11 (1): 76-89. doi:10.1177/1077559505283699. ISSN 1552-6119.

See also

Selected bibliography

  • Bowlby J [1950] (1995). Maternal Care and Mental Health, 2nd edition, The master work series, Northvale, NJ; London: Jason Aronson. [Geneva, World Health Organization, Monograph series no. 3]. ISBN 1-56821-757-9. OCLC 33105354. 
  • Bowlby J [1965] (1976). in Fry M (abridged & ed.): Child Care and the Growth of Love (Report, World Health Organisation, 1953 (above)), Ainsworth MD (2 add. ch.), 2nd edn., Pelican books, London: Penguin Books. ISBN 0-14-013458-1. ISBN 0-14-020271-4. OCLC 154150053. 
  • Bowlby J [1969] (1999). Attachment, 2nd edition, Attachment and Loss (vol. 1), New York: Basic Books. LCCN 00266879; NLM 8412414. ISBN 0-465-00543-8 (pbk). OCLC 11442968. 
  • Bowlby J (1973). Separation: Anxiety & Anger, Attachment and Loss (vol. 2); (International psycho-analytical library no.95). London: Hogarth Press. ISBN 0712666214 (pbk). ISBN 0-70120-301-3. OCLC 8353942. 
  • Bowlby J (1980). Loss: Sadness & Depression, Attachment and Loss (vol. 3); (International psycho-analytical library no.109). London: Hogarth Press. ISBN 0-465-04238-4 (pbk). ISBN 0-70120-350-1. OCLC 59246032. 
  • Bowlby J (1988). A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development, Tavistock professional book. London: Routledge. ISBN 0422622303 (pbk). ISBN 0-415-00640-6. OCLC 42913724. 
  • Bretherton I (Sep 1992). The origins of attachment theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology 28 (5): 759-775. ISSN 0012-1649. OCLC 1566542.
  • Holmes J (1993). John Bowlby and Attachment Theory, Makers of modern psychotherapy. London; New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-07730-3 (pbk). ISBN 0-415-07729-X. OCLC 27266442. 
  • Van Dijken S (1998). John Bowlby: His Early Life: A Biographical Journey into the Roots of Attachment Theory. London; New York: Free Association Books. ISBN 1853433934 (pbk). ISBN 1853433926. OCLC 39982501. 
  • Van Dijken S; Van der Veer R; Van IJzendoorn MH; Kuipers HJ (Summer 1998). Bowlby before Bowlby: The sources of an intellectual departure in psychoanalysis and psychology. Journal of the History of the Behavioural Sciences 34 (3): 247-269. doi:<247::AID-JHBS2>3.0.CO;2-N 10.1002/(SICI)1520-6696(199822)34:3<247::AID-JHBS2>3.0.CO;2-N. ISSN 0022-5061. Retrieved on 2007-09-01.
  • Mayhew B (Nov 2006). Between love and aggression: The politics of John Bowlby. History of the Human Sciences 19 (4): 19-35. doi:10.1177/0952695106069666. ISSN 0952-6951.
  • Van der Horst FCP; van der Veer R; van IJzendoorn MH (2007). John Bowlby and ethology: An annotated interview with Robert Hinde. Attachment & Human Development 9 (4): 321-335. doi:10.1080/14616730601149809. ISSN 1469-2988. Retrieved on 2007-11-30.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article "John_Bowlby". A list of authors is available in Wikipedia.
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