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Mary Dinsmore Salter Ainsworth (1913-1999)

attachment infant university bowlby

Mary Dinsmore Salter was born on December 1, 1913, in Glendale, Ohio, the oldest daughter of Charles and Mary Salter. Charles, a successful businessman, moved his family to Toronto at the end of World War I. Their daughter Mary was a gifted child who learned to read at the age of three, and was very attached to her father. During her undergraduate years at the University of Toronto, William Blatz, who had developed "security theory," sparked Salter's interest in psychology. According to this theory, the family is the secure base from which a developing individual can move out to develop new skills and interests. Salter's dissertation, entitled "An Evaluation of Adjustment Based on the Concept of Security," was completed in 1939.

After teaching briefly at the University of Toronto, Salter felt an increasing obligation to contribute to the war effort. She entered the Canadian Women's Army Corps in 1942, attaining the rank of major. In this position, she gained considerable clinical and diagnostic skills. After returning to the University of Toronto as assistant professor in 1946, she coauthored a widely used clinical book, Developments in the Rorschach Technique, with Bruno Klopfer.

In 1950 Salter married Leonard Ainsworth, a World War II veteran and graduate student in psychology at Toronto. Both went to London, where Leonard completed his doctoral studies and Mary applied for a research position on John Bowlby's team at the Tavistock Institute for Human Relations. She was offered the position, and her collaboration with Bowlby changed the direction of her career.

Bowlby, together with his collaborator James Robertson, had begun to conduct observational studies of the devastating effects of prolonged separation from the mother on young children who were hospitalized or living in residential nurseries. Robertson's observational methods, acquired while working at Anna Freud's wartime residential nursery, impressed Ainsworth particularly and inspired her later naturalistic studies. At the same time, she was exposed to Bowlby's emerging ideas about the evolutionary foundation of infant-mother attachment, but despite her love for ethology, she did not initially find Bowlby's new propositions particularly convincing. Like most others at the time, she believed that babies came to love their mothers because mothers satisfy babies' needs.

In 1953 Ainsworth's husband accepted a postdoctoral position at the East African Institute for Social Research in Kampala, Uganda. Mary accompanied him and was able to garner funds for a short-term longitudinal study of twenty-six Ganda village families with young infants. It was during her observations of these families that Bowlby's ethological notions began to make sense to her. Thus, the first attachment study was undertaken before Bowlby formally presented attachment theory in 1958. The book, Infancy in Uganda, which contains detailed case studies of every Mary Dinsmore Salter Ainsworth's conceptual contributions and empirical findings revolutionized how psychologists think about infant-caregiver attachment. (R. S. Marvin) infant-mother pair, was published many years later, in 1967.

In 1954 the Ainsworths moved to Baltimore, Maryland. For a few years, Mary lectured part-time and worked at a psychiatric hospital. It was only in 1958 that Johns Hopkins University offered her a professorship in developmental psychology. During this period, she and Leonard divorced.

The position at Johns Hopkins enabled her to launch a groundbreaking sequel to the Ganda Study. The Baltimore Project was based on monthly home observations of twenty-six families. Home visits began shortly after an infant's birth and were recorded as detailed narratives. The last observation, at twelve months, consisted of a laboratory procedure of mother-infant separations and reunions, devised with Barbara Wittig, and now known as the Strange Situation. The Strange Situation revealed important individual differences in patterns of attachment that were correlated with home observation findings. For this reason, it became tremendously important as a shortcut method of assessing the quality of infant-parent attachment. However, Ainsworth occasionally expressed regret that the Strange Situation stole the limelight from her highly original analyses of feeding, close bodily contact, face-to-face play, and crying observed in the home. These documented that maternal sensitivity to infant signals in the early months leads to a more harmonious mother-infant relationship at the end of the first year. Several influential journal articles and a book, Patterns of Attachment, were published over the next decade or so.

From the mid-1960s onwards, Ainsworth attracted many graduate students who made further contributions to attachment theory and research (e.g., Silvia Bell, Mary Blehar, Inge Bretherton, Alicia Lieberman, Mary Main, Sally Wall). Her stimulating lectures influenced undergraduates such as Mark Cummings, Mark Greenberg, Robert Marvin, and Everett Waters, who, as graduate students, took attachment theory to other universities.

When Ainsworth accepted a position at the University of Virginia in 1974, her work was becoming increasingly influential, stimulating longitudinal studies of attachment in the United States and other countries that are still ongoing. In the late 1970s she was elected president of the Society for Research in Child Development. At the same time, many graduate students interested in attachment continued to flock to her (among them Jude Cassidy, Deborah Cohn, Virginia Colin, Patricia Crittenden, Carolyn Eichberg, Rogers Kobak, and Ulrike Wartner). After reluctantly retiring as Professor Emerita in 1984 at the required age of seventy, Ainsworth remained professionally active until 1992. In her later years, until her health began to fail, she retained a deep interest in the work of her former students who had begun to study attachment beyond infancy. A year before her death, she received one of the highest honors psychology can bestow, the Gold Medal Award for Life Achievement in the Science of Psychology from the American Psychological Association. She died of a massive stroke on March 21, 1999, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Her conceptual contributions and empirical findings have revolutionized how psychologists think about infant-caregiver attachment and close human relationships at all ages.


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

Karen, Robert. Becoming Attached: First Relationships and How They Shape Our Capacity to Love. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Publications by Ainsworth

Infancy in Uganda: Infant Care and the Growth of Love. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967.

Ainsworth, Mary D. S., Mary C. Blehar, Everett Waters, and Sally Wall. Patterns of Attachment: A Psychological Study of the Strange Situation. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, 1978.

Ainsworth, Mary D. S., Silvia Bell, and D. Stayton. "Intant-Mother Attachment and Social Development." In M. P. Richards ed., The Introduction of the Child into a Social World. London: Cambridge University Press, 1974.

"Attachments Beyond Infancy."American Psychologist 44(1989):709-716.

Bell, Silvia M., and Mary D. S. Ainsworth. "Infant Crying and Maternal Responsiveness."Child Development 43 (1972):1171-1190.

Inge Bretherton

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