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Murray Bowen

1913-1990 American psychiatrist who pioneered family therapy.

Murray Bowen grew up in a small town that he believed gave him the foundation for his theories on family therapy. To Bowen, the family was an emotional unit; although it was made up of individuals who had their own thoughts and needs, much of how they behaved was the result of how they functioned as part of the family.

Bowen, the oldest of five children, was born in Waverly, Tennessee, on January 31, 1913. His parents were Jesse and Maggie Bowen; their families had lived in Tennessee since the days of the American Revolution. Jesse Bowen was mayor of Waverly, and he also ran several small businesses there, including the funeral parlor.

Bowen attended the University of Tennessee, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1934. He then went to the University of Tennessee Medical School, where he received his M.D. in 1937. He completed internships in New York and in 1941 enlisted in the Army. Before his military experience he had planned to become a cardiac surgeon. His observation of soldiers in the midst of war, however, convinced him that mental illness was a more pressing and worthwhile goal. Upon leaving the Army in 1946, he accepted a fellowship at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, where he studied psychoanalysis for several years. Eventually he came to believe that, despite Freud's success, his methods fell short in one important regard: recognizing the family as a unit with its own emotional needs and behaviors. Whereas Freud focused on the self, Bowen saw the family as a source of much of the behavior its members expressed. Each member operated as an individual, but within the family structure with its own set of rules. In other words, Bowen's approach took a more pragmatic look at human relationships. As one of five siblings, and as a husband and father of four children, he no doubt observed much of what he was writing about in his own family structure.

Bowen moved to the National Institute of Mental Health in 1954, and then to Georgetown University Medical Center in 1959, where he remained for the rest of his career. In the late 1950s he further developed what he called his "Family Systems Theory." Bowen believed that family members would adopt certain types of behavior based on their place in the family; with this knowledge, a therapist could grapple with behavioral issues more effectively and accurately.

In his later years, Bowen remained active in family therapy. He published his book, Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, in 1978, and he was a founder and first president of the American Family Therapy Association from 1978 to 1982. He died of lung cancer at his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, on October 9, 1990.

George A. Milite

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