Lives of the fellows

Edward John Mostyn Bowlby

b.26 February 1907 d.2 September 1990
CBE(1972) MA Cantab(1932) BChir(1933) MD(1939) MRCP(1960) FRCP(1964) FRCPsych(1971) Hon ScD Cantab(1977)

John Bowlby was the second son of Major General Sir Anthony Bowlby, 1st Baronet, who was surgeon to King Edward VII s household, honorary surgeon-in-ordinary to King George V, and president of the Royal College of Surgeons from 1920-23. His mother, Maria Bridget née Mostyn, was the daughter of a Church of England clergyman. His early education was at Abberley Hall preparatory school and, as he was destined for a naval career, the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth. But he changed his mind, decided to study medicine and went up to Trinity College, Cambridge, and University College Hospital, London. On qualification in medicine he specialized in psychiatry, child psychiatry and psychoanalysis. From 1933-35 he was a clinical assistant at the Maudsley Hospital. In 1936 he joined the staff of the London Child Guidance Clinic where he stayed until 1940. During the second world war he served as a consultant psychiatrist in the RAMC, attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel. In 1946 he joined the staff of the Tavistock Clinic and remained there until his retirement in 1972.

He was chairman of the department of children and parents at the Tavistock Clinic from 1946-68, and president of the International Association of Child Psychiatrists and Allied Professions from 1962-66. From 1963-72 he was a member of the external scientific staff of the Medical Research Council, and from 1950 onwards was consultant in mental health to the World Health Organization. He carried out research at the National Institute of Mental Health, Bethesda, USA, from 1958-63 and was visiting professor of psychiatry at Stanford University, California, in 1968.

In 1946 he published a study of delinquent children who had been referred to the London Child Guidance Clinic, Forty-four juvenile thieves: their characters and home life, London, Bailière, Tindall & Cox. But the work which really established his reputation began with an invitation from the World Health Organisation in 1950, to advise on the mental health of homeless children. This led to the publication in 1951 of Maternal care and mental health, based on his WHO report, which was later abridged and edited by Margery Fry as Child care and the growth of love; London, Baltimore USA, Penguin Books, 1953. He then published Attachment, New York, Basic Books, cl969, which was the first volume of his massive trilogy Attachment, Separation and Loss the second volume being Separation: anxiety and anger, 1973. The trilogy was completed in 1980 by the publication of Loss: sadness and depression. Briefer, more popular expositions of Bowlby’s views appeared in The making and breaking of affectional bonds, London, Tavistock Publications, 1979, followed by A secure base, in 1988.

Bowlby was the originator of what is now known as ‘attachment theory’. Having established that separation from the mother or mother-substitute in early childhood often had dire results, Bowlby set about investigating the way in which human beings establish ties of attachment with one another and what consequences follow when these ties are severed. Unlike most psychoanalysts, Bowlby was acutely aware of the necessity of evidence to support his theories. His conclusions were always backed up by objective research and extensive references. His interest led him to study ethology and he became acquainted with and indebted to Konrad Lorenz, Niko Tinbergen and Robert Hinde. His studies of attachment in other species led him to conclude that the biological roots of attachment originated in the need to protect the young from predators.

His interest in biological theory and in the effects of bereavement led to his last book, a biography of Darwin; Charles Darwin: a biography, London, Hutchinson, 1990, which related the scientist’s chronic ill health and recurrent anxiety and depression to the early death of his mother. This book was published only a few weeks before Bowlby’s death. His studies of attachment had two main consequences. First, his theories prompted a large body of research, ranging from studies of attachment between infants and their mothers to the effects of bereavement and the severance of social ties in adult life. Second, his demonstration that in the case of small children even brief periods of separation from their mothers can have serious emotional consequences led to important changes in hospital practice.

It is now taken for granted that parents should be allowed free access to their sick children in hospital and vice versa, but before Bowlby’s work this was by no means common practice. Bowlby reinforced his case that such separations were traumatic by making a series of films with James Robertson, of which the most famous is A two-year old goes to hospital. No one who saw the misery experienced by the child in this film could remain unmoved. Bowlby’s work has saved hundreds of small children from unnecessary emotional distress.

John Bowlby received his training as a psychoanalyst from Joan Rivière, and was supervised by Melanie Klein. It is a tribute to his independence to point out that neither of these two formidable ladies appears to have had the slightest effect on his subsequent development. Whereas the majority of psychoanalysts, especially those belonging to the Kleinian persuasion, emphasize the importance of the patient’s inner world or fantasy as providing the origin of neurotic symptoms, Bowlby remained firmly convinced that traumatic events in real life were more significant; not only separation and loss but also parental threats of abandonment and other cruelties. At one time psychoanalysis was under such heavy attack from biologically minded psychiatrists that it was in danger of total oblivion.

Bowlby, by continuing to call himself a psychoanalyst, and by conscientiously supporting his conclusions with objective research, demonstrated that at least some aspects of psychoanalytic theory could attain scientific respectability. This admirable and unusually detached stance, however, may have caused his achievements to have been underestimated during his lifetime. Biologically minded psychiatrists tend to be suspicious of anyone calling himself a psychoanalyst, while the psychoanalytic establishment regarded Bowlby as something of a renegade.

His independence of mind made him unclassifiable and this has delayed the final recognition of his proper status. As a psychiatrist, Bowlby was a warm, caring human being with an unusual capacity for attentive listening. In spite of his eminence he was not in the least self-important. He always remained entirely approachable and ready to learn from others. He was an excellent teacher and greatly in demand as a lecturer. Posterity will recognize that John Bowlby’s contributions to psychiatric knowledge, and to the care of children, mark him as one of the three or four most important psychiatrists of the 20th century.

He married Ursula Longstaff in 1938. They had two daughters and two sons. He was a committed family man, fond of outdoor pursuits including walking, shooting and natural history. Most holidays were spent on the Isle of Skye, and it was there that he died.

A Storr

[The Times, 14 Sept,13 Oct 1990;The Independent, 5,13,18 Sept 1990; The Guardian, 5 Sept 1990; The Daily Telegraph, 7 Sept 1990, book review 22 Sept;, 1987,295,157-8; New Scientist, 4 Aug 1977,286]

(Volume IX, page 49)

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