Bowlby, John

views updated May 17 2018

Bowlby, John 1907-1990


John Mostyn Bowlby was a British child psychiatrist who developed attachment theory, which posited that poor relationships (attachments) to caregivers in early childhood are the primary cause of most childhood disorders. When first introduced in the 1940s, attachment theory was shunned by the psychoanalytic movement because it conflicted with some principles of psychoanalysis that were popular at the time. Attachment theory is now highly regarded as a well-established and well-researched explanation of childhood behavioral and emotional problems.

Born in 1907 to an upper-middle-class family in London, Bowlby was raised in traditional British fashion by nannies, until he was sent to boarding school at age seven. After his 1928 graduation from the medical college at the University of Cambridge, he volunteered at two homes serving maladjusted and delinquent children. While there, he began to investigate the early influences of the family on later childhood difficulties. To further develop his ideas on the impact of family relationships on the mental health of children, Bowlby returned to school to study child psychiatry, psychoanalysis, and psychotherapy.

At the British Psychoanalytic Institute, Bowlby trained with instructors who were among the most influential analysts of the time, including Melanie Klein (1882-1960). Although trained primarily in adult psychiatry, Bowlby returned to his work with the London Child Guidance Clinic in 1937.

In 1940 Bowlby wrote the first of several controversial papers demonstrating his divergence from contemporary psychoanalytic trends. Bowlby stated that psychoanalysts should study the nature of the organism, the properties of the soil, and their interaction (1940, p. 23) rather than the unconscious drives or urges that characterized the Freudian approach to understanding childhood behaviors and emotions. While at the London Clinic, Bowlby began systematic research using patient case histories to link symptoms to parental deprivation and separation (Bretherton 1992, p. 761).

After World War II (19391945), Bowlby headed the Childrens Department at the Tavistock Clinic and began studying homeless children and children separated from their parents by hospitalization. In 1952 Bowlby and colleague James Robertson (19111988) filmed the documentary A Two-Year-Old Goes to Hospital, which alarmed clinicians regarding the impact of maternal separation, and influenced hospitals to change strict visitation policies.

In 1957 Bowlby presented the first formal statement of his theory that the mother-child attachment has an ethological-evolutionary foundationthat is, children, like the young of most animals, have innate behaviors promoting contact with the parent to enhance survival. Bowlby concluded that a childs survival is more likely when the child is emotionally connected and in proximity to the mother. Bowlby eventually split completely from the Kleinian psychoanalytic school and established a research unit focused on mother-child separation, continuing his work with influential researchers, including Mary Ainsworth (19131999). Ainsworths research on the normative child-mother relationship across various cultures complemented Bowlbys research. Ainsworths findings supported Bowlbys theory of the importance of early parental relationships on the behavioral and emotional well-being of children.

Bowlby continued to develop attachment theory, and spent the last decades of his life, until his death in 1990, refining the clinical application of the theory.

SEE ALSO Ainsworth, Mary; Attachment Theory; Separation Anxiety


Bowlby, John. 1940. The Influence of Early Environment in the Development of Neurosis and Neurotic Character. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis 21: 154178.

Bretherton, Inge. 1992. The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth. Developmental Psychology 28: 759775.

van Dijken, Suzan. 1998. John Bowlby: His Early Life, a Biographical Journey into the Roots of Attachment Theory. London: Free Association.

van Dijken, Suzan, René van der Veer, Marinus van Ijzendoorn, and Hans-Jan Kuipers. 1998. Bowlby Before Bowlby: The Sources of an Intellectual Departure in Psychoanalysis and Psychology. Journal of the History of Behavioral Sciences 34 (3): 247269.

Melissa D. Grady

Bowlby, John (1907-1990)

views updated May 14 2018

Bowlby, John (1907-1990)

John Bowlby was born on February 26, 1907, and studied medicine in Cambridge, England and psychology in London. While still a student, he volunteered at a progressive school and began his training at the British Psychoanalytic Institute. After graduation, he began working at the London Child Guidance Clinic.

Bowlby's experiences outside academia were at least as formative as his academic training. His supervisors at the progressive school convinced him that the maladaptive behavior of some children was a result of their primary care-givers having abandoned them. His psychoanalytic training made him aware of the importance of affective relationships in the first years of life. Finally, his work at the Child Guidance Clinic brought him into contact with juvenile delinquents whose behavior Bowlby believed to be rooted in unsatisfactory emotional relationships.

Starting in about 1940 Bowlby elaborated his conviction that children's socioemotional problems originate in a lack of consistent parental love. This led him to formulate his attachment theory. In its ultimate form, attachment theory incorporated elements of psychoanalytic theory, cybernetics, Piagetian theory, and ethology. In line with ethology, for example, Bowlby believed that crying and smiling are proximity-seeking behaviors that trigger parental intervention and love and thus promote the infant's survival.

Empirical support for Bowlby's ideas originally came from maternal deprivation and hospitalization studies. The invention of two measurement instruments, and their accompanying classifications, gave the empirical study of attachment behavior new impetus. These instruments were the Strange Situation (SS) procedure invented by psychologist Mary Ainsworth and the Adult Attachment Interview (AAI) invented by psychologist Mary Main.

The SS is a standardized laboratory procedure during which a one-year-old child and her caregiver are twice briefly separated. The child's behavior as she is reunited with the caregiver is believed to betray essential elements of their relationship. On the basis of these reunions, children's attachment patterns are characterized as secure (B), avoidant (A), ambivalent (C), or disorganized (D).

The SS and the classification into attachment patterns led to an avalanche of empirical studies, including investigations into the factors that contribute to specific attachment patterns (e.g., child characteristics, parental behavior, life events), ways to modify unsatisfactory attachment patterns, and long-term effects of attachment patterns as measured by the SS.

The AAI is a semistructured interview devised to assess adults' views of their own childhoods with respect to attachment. The ways the adults reflect on their childhood experiences are believed to be indicative of the ways they have coped with these experiences. Different styles of coping lead to an A, B, C, or D classification, similar to the one used in the SS.

The AAI has been used in numerous studies to investigate how attachment patterns are transmitted across generations, thus testing Bowlby's belief that, for example, parents' unresolved conflicts are played out in the interactions with their own children. Although attachment theory and its measurement instruments have been criticized, the number of investigations inspired by Bowlby's theory is still growing. The practical implications of attachment theory for the way we raise our children are potentially enormous.

See also: Age and Development; Child Development, History of the Concept of; Child Psychology; Freud, Anna; Freud, Sigmund; Klein, Melanie.


Bretherton, Inge. 1992. "The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth." Developmental Psychology 28: 759-775.

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

Van Dijken, Suzan, René van der Veer, Marinus H. Van Ijzendoorn, et al. 1998. "Bowlby before Bowlby: The Sources of an Intellectual Departure in Psychoanalysis and Psychology." Journal of the History of the Behavioral Sciences 34: 247-269.

RenÉ van der Veer

Bowlby, Edward John Mostyn (1907-1990)

views updated May 18 2018


An English psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, Edward John Bowlby was born February 26, 1907, in London and died September 2, 1990, in Skye Ball, Great Britain. His childhood was divided between an urban life in London, where he was raised by nannies, and vacations in the countryside with his family. In 1938 he married Ursula Hongstaffs, a musician, with whom he had four children. He began his medical studies in 1929 in London and entered into analysis with Joan Rivière. He worked as a psychiatrist at the London Child Guidance Clinic until the war, when he joined the army. After the war Bowlby joined the Tavistock Clinic, where he served as director of the children's center from 1950 to 1972. As Donald Winnicott's secretary at the British Psychoanalytical Society from 1956 to 1961, he organized training sessions and research activities. From 1950 to 1972 he was a mental health consultant for the World Health Organization. In 1980 he was named professor of psychoanalysis at University College in London.

Bowlby studied psychoanalysis in order to become a child psychoanalyst. His first supervised psychoanalysis with Melanie Klein in 1937 soon revealed a fundamental difference between them: For Bowlby the environment and its role were not sufficiently accounted for in Klein's theories. Based on his highly original clinical training (he worked with handicapped and institutionalized children) and his sensitivity to the function of the mother-child bond and the environment, he developed the position that the instinct for preservation is as important as that of sexuality and that the mother-child bond is independent of infantile sexuality.

His admission to the British Psychoanalytical Society, which was then (in 1940) torn by the struggles between Kleinians and supporters of Anna Freud, is important. Bowlby acknowledged his connection to Anna Freud while regretting her refusal to accept the reality of trauma. In 1958, for the appearance of his article "The Nature of the Child's Tie to his Mother," Bowlby proposed a revision of metapsychology: abandonment of the theory of anaclisis, abandonment of the economic point of view, emphasis on the dynamic point of view, and definition of the unconscious as the interiorization of interpersonal experiences. He was criticized and rejected by the Psychoanalytical Society with unusual severity. Deeply wounded by the reaction of his peers, he gradually withdrew from the Society, and turned to other scientific activities then in vogue (ethology, cybernetics, and systems theory). He worked for more than twenty years on his book on attachment. It was only after 1981 that he was asked to return to analysis and develop the clinical and psychotherapeutic implications of his theory.

Bowlby's work had a tremendous impact on public health especially, in providing a better understanding of the effects of separation on young children, and the prevention of these effects. He also made numerous contributions to social science: contributions to developmental psychology and psychiatry, especially the roles of security, reciprocity, intersubjectivity, and the interpersonal development of thought in the young child; contributions to the understanding and management of borderline states; theorization of so-called non-specific factors in psychotherapy, and treatment of so-called "inaccessible" families subject to multiple risks.

Nicole GuÉdeney

See also: Abandonment; Aphanisis; Attachment; Great Britain; Maternal care; Primary need; Psychoanalytic Study of the Child, The ; Schur, Max; Stranger; Tavistock Clinic; Tenderness.


Bowlby, John. (1944). Forty-four juvenile thieves: Their characters and home life. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 25, 1-57; 207-228.

. (1951). Maternal care and mental health. Geneva: World Health Organization Monographs.

. (1969). Attachment and loss (Vol. 1). London: Hogarth Press.

Eagle, Morris. (1995). The developmental perspectives of attachment and psychoanalytic theory. In S. Goldberg, R. Muir, J. Kerr (Eds.), Attachment theory. Social, developmental and clinical perspectives (pp. 123-153). Hillsdale, NJ-London: The Analytic Press.

Holmes, Jeremy. (1993). John Bowlby and attachment theory. London: Routledge.

Bowlby, John

views updated Jun 11 2018

John Bowlby

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 bondwhat it meant, and what happened when it did not or could not existformed 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.

Bowlby, John (1907-1990)

views updated Jun 27 2018

BOWLBY, JOHN (1907-1990)

John Bowlby was an English psychiatrist who developed attachment theory, one of the century's most influential theories of personality development and social relationships. Born in London, England, Bowl-by graduated from Cambridge University in 1928 and began his professional training at the British Psychoanalytic Institute as a child psychiatrist. He was trained in the neo-Freudian object-relations approach to psychoanalysis, which taught that children's emotional disturbances were primarily a function of their fantasies generated by internal conflict. While embracing the psychoanalytic emphasis on the importance of the early years for children's healthy emotional development, Bowlby felt that this approach neglected the importance of their actual early experiences with their parents.

After World War II, Bowlby became the head of the Children's Department at the Tavistock Clinic, where he focused his clinical studies on the effects of mother-child separation. He completed a monograph for the World Health Organization on the sad fate of homeless children in postwar Europe and collaborated with James Robertson on a film, A Two-Year-Old Goes to the Hospital. These works drew the attention of child clinicians to the potentially devastating effects of maternal separation, and led to the liberalization of family visiting privileges for hospitalized children.

Unsatisfied with the psychoanalytic view that the child's love of mother derived from oral gratification, Bowlby embraced the ethological theories of Konrad Lorenz and Niko Tinbergen, which stress the evolutionary foundations of behavior as a source of explanation for mother-child attachment relationships. He presented his first formal statements of ethologically based attachment theory to the British Psychoanalytic Society in 1957. Bowlby argued that mother-child attachment has an evolutionary basis, promoting the child's survival by increasing mother-child proximity, particularly when the child is stressed or fearful. The mother thus serves as a secure base for the young child's exploration of the world. Bowlby expanded his theory of attachment in his Attachment and Loss trilogy (volume 1: Attachment, volume 2: Separation, and volume 3:Loss). Bowlby's theory was supported by the empirical work of his collaborator, Mary Dinsmore Salter Ainsworth, who examined the normative development of attachment relationships across cultures as well as the maternal care-giving patterns that predict individual differences in the quality of mother-infant attachment security.

Controversial at first, attachment theory became a dominant principle of social and personality development by the 1980s, generating thousands of research papers and serving as a theoretical basis for clinical intervention programs. After his retirement in 1972, Bowlby continued to develop the clinical application of attachment theory. He completed a biography of Charles Darwin shortly before his death in 1990.


Bretheron, Inge. "The Origins of Attachment Theory: John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth."Developmental Psychology 28 (1992):759-775.

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

Publications by Bowlby

Maternal Care and Mental Health. Geneva: World Health Organization, 1946.

"The Nature of the Child's Tie to His Mother." International Journal of Psychoanalysis 39 (1958):1-23.

Attachment and Loss, Vol. 1:Attachment. New York: Basic Books, 1968.

Attachment and Loss, Vol. 2: Separation, Anxiety, and Anger. London:Penguin Books, 1973.

Attachment and Loss, Vol. 3: Loss: Sadness and Depression. New York:Basic Books, 1980.

Bowlby, John, James Robertson, and Dina Rosenbluth. "A Two-Year-Old Goes to the Hospital."Psychoanalytic Study of the Child 7 (1952):82-74.


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