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Fairbairn, William Ronald Dodds (1889-1964)


British physician and psychoanalyst William Ronald Dodds Fairbairn was born in Edinburgh on August 11, 1889, and died there on December 31, 1964.

Ronald Fairbairn was the only child of middle-class parents with strict Protestant morals and strong academic traditions in Scotland. He studied moral philosophy at Edinburgh University, and divinity and Hellenistic Greek at Edinburgh, Kiel, Strasbourg and Manchester.

Fairbairn made the decision to study medicine and psychotherapy after serving in the First World War. As a medical student he started analysis with E. H. Connell, and shortly after qualifying began thirty years of working with war neuroses. Despite being without the requisite formal training, he began psychoanalytic work in 1925 and obtained his MD in 1927. In 1926 he married and began a family; he started his clinical writing soon after. From 1927 to 1935 he was a lecturer in psychology at Edinburgh University, his special subject being adolescence, and held a post at the Clinic for Children and Juveniles where he treated the delinquent and sexually abused.

He was introduced to the British Psycho-Analytical Society by both Ernest Jones and Edward Glover, who admired his thinking and intellectual rigor. Fairbairn was elected as associate member of the British Psycho-Analytical Society after presenting a paper to the Society in 1931. He became a full member in 1938.

During the Second World War he held a post in the Emergency Medical Service, and later a government post, while beginning to publish his most important contributions. Isolated from the conflicts in the British Psycho-Analytical Society, he was able to develop his original and independent ideas, and towards the end of his life was increasingly recognized. Fairbairn's first wife died in 1952, and he remarried in 1959.

Fairbairn's principal contributions can be found in his book Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality (1952), and his article "An Object Relation Theory of the Personality" (1954). Several of these contributions are outlined below.

Fairbairn moved from a biological model to a psychological one, in which the early unitary ego is genetically geared towards object relationships. Energy is inseparable from structure in this model, and "drive" is seen as the struggle for integration, individuation and recognition within a human environment.

He described a theory of development based on a maturational sequence of relationships throughout life, from infantile dependence to "mature dependence." To this he added a theory of endopsychic structure and its development, in which the ego, as it becomes attached to different (ideal, exciting, rejecting) aspects of mother, internalizes them and splits (this is the "schizoid condition," inevitable and basic). The ego divides into a "central" ego, partly conscious and available for real relationships; a "libidinal" ego; and an "antilibidinal" ("internal saboteur") ego, both unconscious. The central ego also internalizes what Fairbairn called the "ideal object," and in order to earn its approbation develops the "moral defense" of guilt; it is the central ego, operating in the "real world" and also in touch with inner structures, that can mediate between them and lead to the opening up of the inner world to reality.

Fairbairn also developed a theory of psychopathology based on real environmental failure, in which the infant internalizes and identifies with the bad aspects of its parent(s), and represses the relationships, together with memory, fantasy, and attached affect. The type and severity of psychopathology depends on the degree of splitting and repression required, the defenses against it, and the amount of remaining central ego available for external relationships. Here there are implications for psychoanalytic technique, particularly in the understanding of repetition compulsion.

One of the most important founders of object-relations theory, Fairbairn left work that has been increasingly influential, both in the United Kingdom and internationally. Those particularly influenced include members of the British Independent Group, attachment theorists, self-psychologists, and intersubjective theorists.

Jennifer Johns

Notions developed: Antilibidinal ego; Quasi-independence/transitional stage.

See also: Breast, good/bad object; Great Britain; Libido; Object relations theory; Self (true/false).


Fairbairn, Ronald. (1952). Psychoanalytic studies of the personality. London: Tavistock Publications.

. (1994). From instinct to self: Selected papers of W. R. D. Fairbairn: Vol. 1, Clinical and theoretical papers. (David Scharff and Ellinor Fairbairn Birtles, Eds.). New Jersey: Jason Aronson.

. (1994). From instinct to self: Selected papers of W. R. D. Fairbairn: Vol. 2, Applications and early contributions. (David Scharff and Ellinor Fairbairn Birtles, Eds.). New Jersey: Jason Aronson.

Greenberg, Stephen, and Mitchell, Jay. (1983). Object relations in psychoanalytic theory. Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press.

Grotstein, James, and Rinsley, Donald (Eds.). (1994). Fairbairn and the origins of object relations. London: Free Association Press and New York: The Guilford Press.

Sutherland, John. (1989). Fairbairn's journey into the interior. London: Free Association Press.

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