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John Bowlby (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.

English psychiatrist John Bowlby argued that mother-child attachment has an evolutionary basis. (Bill Varie)

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.

Nancy Hazen

Additional topics

Social Issues ReferenceChild Development Reference - Vol 2