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John Bowlby

1907-1990
British psychiatrist who discovered insights into the mother-child bond.

John Bowlby's pioneering work on the relationship between mothers and children was instrumental in shaping child psychology in the twentieth century. His research focusing on the mother-child bond—what it meant, and what happened when it did not or could not exist—formed the basis for groundbreaking work that culminated in his "attachment theory" about maternal bonding. More important, he made practical as well as theoretical use of his research, working directly with patients and taking young and talented researchers under his wing.

Born in London on February 26, 1907, Edward John Mostyn Bowlby was the son of Major Sir Anthony Bowlby and the former May Mostyn. Sir Anthony was a physician who served as surgeon to King George V. When John, one of six children, was born, his father was 52 and his mother was 40. His childhood was typical of many middle- and upper-class children in Britain; early years spent with a nanny or governess, then boarding school. Bowlby did not feel that his own upbringing was out of the ordinary, although one could conclude that his own reserved demeanor may have been formed at an early age.

Bowlby attended the Royal Naval College and Cambridge, where he prepared for medical school. He volunteered for a year in a hospital for maladjusted children, an experience that set the stage for his later work. Two children in particular intrigued Bowlby: an adolescent loner who had been expelled from school for stealing, and a nervous seven-year-old who was called Bowlby's shadow because he followed him around. These two children left a lasting impression on the researcher.

Bowlby entered University College Medical School in London for his medical training. He became interested in psychiatry, attending the British Psychoanalytic Institute and also training at the prestigious Maudsley Hospital. At the Institute he was supervised by the innovative child psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Although Bowlby did not agree with many of Klein's theories, her guidance helped him to ground his later research.

After graduating from medical school, Bowlby stayed on at Maudsley. Initially he worked with adult patients, but his work gradually turned to children. His first empirical study, in fact, tracked 44 children whose behavior patterns included anxiety and petty crime. He discovered a common thread among these children: they had been deprived of their mothers at some point during their childhood.

During the Second World War, Bowlby moved away from child research and conducted studies on officer selection criteria for the military. This gave him a chance to gain solid experience with statistics, which aided his research after the war. In 1946 he joined the staff of the Tavistock Clinic in London, where he spent the remainder of his career. During his years at Tavistock, Bowlby was intrigued by the work of Konrad Lorenz, who researched "imprinting" (for example, how young birds identify the first creature they see upon hatching as their mother), and his belief that early experience influenced later behavior grew stronger. From 1950 to 1952, Bowlby served as a consultant for the World Health Organization, in which he worked with orphaned and institutionalized children who had been separated by their mothers. His report, Maternal Child Care and Child Health (1951), said that children who were deprived of their mothers needed a mother figure to substitute; lack of a mother or a substitute mother figure would adversely affect children later in life.

In the 1960s, Bowlby began working on his most important work, his "Attachment and Loss" trilogy. The books included Attachment (1969), Separation (1973), and Loss (1980). Initially, his theories were attacked by traditional psychoanalysts (including Anna Freud) who claimed that he had misinterpreted Freud's ideas. But as psychologists and psychiatrists revised Freud's theories, they realized that Bowlby's theories were both innovative and accurate.

Although Bowlby officially retired in 1972, he remained active in research and writing. He continued his association with Tavistock, but he also spent more time at his vacation home on the Isle of Skye, off the Scottish coast, with his family. (He married Ursula Longstaff in 1938 and had four children.) His last book, a biography of Charles Darwin, was published in 1990, only months before his death of a stroke on September 2 on Skye.

George A. Milite

Further Reading

Bowlby, John. Attachment and Loss, vols. 1-3. New York, Basic Books, 1969, 1973, 1980.

Holmes, Jeremy. John Bowlby and Attachment Theory. London, Routledge, 1993.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists