John Bowlby (1907 to 1990)

John BowlbyJohn Bowlby was a psychiatrist and paediatrician whose work on the bond between mother and child led to his development of ‘Attachment Theory’, which has profoundly influenced not just psychotherapy, but parenting styles around the world. Bowlby joined the Tavistock Clinic in 1946 and worked here until his retirement in 1972.

John Bowlby came from a privileged background. His father was Major General Sir Anthony Bowlby, 1st Baronet, who was surgeon to King Edward VII’s household. Bowlby himself studied medicine at Trinity College, Cambridge, and University College Hospital, London. On qualification he specialised in psychiatry, child psychiatry and psychoanalysis. From 1933-35 he worked as a clinical assistant at the Maudsley Hospital and then in 1936 he joined the staff of the London Child Guidance Clinic where he stayed until 1940.

At the London Child Guidance Clinic he undertook a study of child criminals and found that a significant number had experienced prolonged separation from their mothers before they were aged five. Published in 1944 as ‘44 Juvenile Thieves’ this marked the start of a lifetime’s work into the nature of the bond between mother and child and the emotional quality of attachment.

At the start of World War 2 Bowlby contributed to The Cambridge Evacuation Survey, a detailed study of the impact of mass evacuation on children. During the Second World War he also served as a consultant psychiatrist in the Royal Army Medical Corps, under JR Rees, the Tavistock Clinic’s second director. Bowlby worked with Wilfred Bion, Jock Sutherland and Eric Trist on the experimental War Office Selection Boards – Bowlby evaluated the effectiveness of the boards and demonstrated that in the long term it reduced the failure rate of officers from 45% to 15%.

After the war Bion recruited his former colleagues Bowlby and Sutherland from the Army into the Tavi. Sutherland became director and head of the Adult Department. Bowlby became deputy director and head of the Children and Parents Department. In the run up to the Children Act being published in 1948 Bowlby realised that nationally large numbers of rained people would be needed to work with children. He made training and education a significant focus of his department’s work and encouraged Esther Bick to develop child psychotherapy training. Her response was to develop Infant Observation.

Bowlby also developed the Tavistock research unit. This initially included himself James Robertson and Mary Boston, but went on to include Dina Rosenbluth, Mary Ainsworth, Christopher Heinicke, Rudolph Schaffer and others. In 1956 Ainsworth, Boston and Bowlby published, ‘The effects of mother-child separation; a follow-up study’, which is where the term ‘attachment was first used.

Bowlby believed that the earliest bonds formed by children with their mothers or caregivers have a tremendous impact that continues throughout life. Unlike most psychoanalysts, Bowlby was acutely aware of the necessity of evidence to support his theories. Some of this was evidence was captured by James Robertson in the now famous film A Two-year-old goes to Hospital. Bowlby’s Attachment and Loss trilogy was published in 1969, 1972 and 1980.

Following the findings relating to maternal deprivation, Bowlby sought to develop a theory which would support and explain his results. The result was Attachment Theory. Even though this has wide acceptance nowadays, it initially met fierce resistance, not least because it was seen as a challenge to Freud’s drive based model, basing the model of intra-personal connection on the emotional quality of attachment rather than adult sexuality.