John Bowlby

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John Bowlby (1907 - 1990) was a British developmental psychologist in the psychoanalytic tradition, notable for his pioneering work in attachment theory.



John Mostyn Bowlby was born 26 February 1907 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, first Baronet 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. She had thought that spoiling her children was dangerous, so that attention and affection was the opposite of what was required with a child. 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 as tragic as the loss of a mother.

At the age of seven, he was sent off to boarding school. 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.

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He died 2 September 1990 at his summer home in Isle of Skye, Scotland. He had married Ursula Longstaff, herself the daughter of a surgeon, on 16 April 1938, and they had four children, including (Sir) Richard Bowlby, who succeeded his uncle as third Baronet Bowlby.


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.

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.

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.

The most famous and enduring work of John Bowlby was theorizing about attachment styles of infants with primary caretakers. He observed and generalized from his observations, and hence developed a scientific theory (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.


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 attachment disorder use attachment theory. Treatment and prevention programs include Alicia Lieberman ("Parent-child Psychotherapy"), Stanley Greenspan ("Floor Time"), Daniel Hughes ("Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy"), Mary Dozier (autonomous states of mind), Robert Marvin ("Circle of Security"), Phyllis Jernberg ("Theraplay"), Daniel Schechter (intergenerational communication of trauma), and Joy Osofsky ("Safe Start Initiative").

Some clinicians have used Bowlby's theory as the basis for controversial interventions (commonly termed "holding therapy") that have no acceptance among established practitioners or researchers and which do not meet standards set by various groups, such as the National Association of Social Workers, the American Psychological Association, the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, or the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, to name a few. (Attachment & Human Development, Special Issue: Current perspectives on attachment disorders, edited by Thomas O'Connor and Charley Zeanah, vol 5 #3, Sept. 2003)

Selected Bibliography

Bowlby, J. (1969,1982) Attachment [Vol. 1 of Attachment and Loss]. London: Hogarth Press; New York, Basic Books; Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin (1971). ISBN 0465005438.

Bowlby, J. (1973) Separation: Anxiety & Anger [Vol. 2 of Attachment and Loss]. London: Hogarth Press; New York: Basic Books; Harmondsworth: Penguin (1975). ISBN 0465097162.

Bowlby, J. (1980) Loss: Sadness & Depression [Vol. 3 of Attachment and Loss]. London: Hogarth Press; New York: Basic Books; Harmondsworth: Penguin (1981). ISBN 0465042376.

Bowlby, J. (1988) A Secure Base: Parent-Child Attachment and Healthy Human Development. London: Routledge; New York: Basic Books. ISBN 0415006406.

Bretherton, I. (1992) "The origins of attachment theory". Developmental Psychology, 28:759-775.

Holmes, J. (1993) John Bowlby and Attachment Theory. London: Routledge. ISBN 041507729X. Retrieved from ""

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