John Bowlby

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Edward John Mostyn Bowlby (born February 26, 1907 in London , † September 2, 1990 in Skye ) was a British pediatrician , child psychiatrist , psychoanalyst and with James Robertson and Mary Ainsworth pioneer of attachment research .


Bowlby grew up as the fourth of six children. His father was a very busy surgeon. His mother only saw Bowlby for about an hour a day; Reduced contact with the mother was common in England at that time, as it was believed that exaggerated expressions of feelings by parents towards the child softened and spoiled their character. A caring role, however, took on Bowlby's own nanny, but she left the family when he was three years old. When he was eight he went to boarding school and after World War I he entered the Royal Naval College at Dartmouth . At the age of seventeen he decided to study medicine and psychology at Trinity College , Cambridge . After graduating in 1928, he taught in boarding schools for two years, one of which was for children with behavioral problems. Experience with the effects of early childhood disorders prompted him to train in the then newly emerging field of child psychiatry . He had already begun training in psychoanalysis while still a student . In 1933 he made his medical degree at University College Hospital and switched to adult psychiatry at Maudsley Hospital and in 1936 to the London Child Guidance Clinic .

In 1940 he became an army psychiatrist and after World War II he was commissioned to set up a department for child psychotherapy at the Tavistock Clinic , where he then remained as director of the department for children and parents. At the Institute for Psychoanalysis he worked with Joan Riviere and Melanie Klein , who were his supervisors after his analytical qualification in 1937. In 1950 Mary Ainsworth joined the Tavistock Clinic and a lifelong collaboration began in the advancement of attachment theory.

In 1951, on behalf of was WHO of John Bowlby study prepared published on the link between maternal care and mental health. It made a contribution to the UN program for the benefit of homeless children.

In 1952 there was almost a final scandal between J. Bowlby and the Psychoanalytic Society in England when he showed a sad and sorrowful girl who had come to the hospital in a film made by his colleague James Robertson, A two year old goes to Hospital and there, as was customary in the treatment of children in hospitals all over the world, was exposed to massive loss of life in complete separation from their relationship and attachment figures. His harshest critic at the time was the psychoanalyst Melanie Klein. Nevertheless, this film by J. Robertson and the collaboration with him gave important impulses for the further development of attachment theory.

In the period from 1956 to 1961, in view of his growing fame, Bowlby was even the deputy president of the Psychoanalytical Association, although attachment theory was firmly rejected there.

In 1981 he was accepted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences . In 1989 he was elected a member ( Fellow ) of the British Academy .


Bowlby set his therapy focus more on the current difficulties in life than on the processing of unconscious childhood memories, as was usual in classical psychoanalysis. For example, in the case of a hyperactive boy, he also included the mother suffering from mental health problems in the treatment. Even then, Bowlby was convinced that real early childhood experiences in the relationship with the parents can fundamentally determine the development of a child and that not only the Oedipus complex and its solution or the monopoly of sexuality are responsible for the emotional development of a child.

His own childhood experiences, his teaching activities with students with behavioral problems, and the clinical experience of the high number of severely broken early mother ties in juvenile thieves drew his attention to the effects of separation . The book Forty-Four Juvenile Thieves: Their Characters and Home Life emerged from this work in 1944 .

In 1958, in his book The nature of the child's tie to his mother, he first put forward his thoughts on the fact that there is a biological system of attachment that is responsible for the development of the emotional relationship between mother and child. His thoughts were influenced by his acquaintance with ethological research, especially by the work of Konrad Lorenz , Nikolaas Tinbergen and Harry Harlow . He also found his own observations confirmed in Robert Hinde's work on rhesus monkeys .

With his 1969 book Attachment - An Analysis of the Mother-Child Relationship , Bowlby founded the attachment theory . In this way, research turned to both the hindering and the promoting factors in the mother-child relationship.

His book Early Attachment and Child Development was included in the list of 100 Masterworks in Psychotherapy.

Fonts (selection)

  • Forty-Four Juvenile Thieves: Their Characters and Home Life. In: International Journal of Psychoanalysis. Volume 25, 1944, pp. 19-52. (Full text, PDF, English)
  • Maternal care and mental health. A report prepared on behalf of the World Health Organization as a contribution to the United Nations program for the welfare of homeless children. (= World Health Organization Monograph Series ). Geneva 1951.
  • The nature of the child's tie to his mother. In: International Journal of Psychoanalysis. Volume 39, 1958, pp. 350-373. (Full text, PDF, English; 212 kB)
  • Attachment - An Analysis of the Mother-Child Relationship. Kindler Verlag, 1982, ISBN 3-463-00618-9 . (Original title: Attachment and Loss. 1969/1983 )
  • Mother's love and child development. Ernst Reinhardt Verlag, Munich / Basel 1972, ISBN 3-497-01107-X .
  • Early attachment and child development. Ernst Reinhardt Verlag, Munich 2001, ISBN 3-497-01566-0 . (Original title: Child Care and the Growth of Love )
  • Attachment and loss. Mother's love and child development. Ernst Reinhardt Verlag, Munich / Basel 2006, ISBN 3-497-01833-3 .

See also


  • Jeremy Holmes: John Bowlby and the Attachment Theory. 2nd Edition. Ernst Reinhardt Verlag, Munich 2006, ISBN 3-497-01598-9 .
  • Bowlby, John. In: Élisabeth Roudinesco , Michel Plon: Dictionary of Psychoanalysis: Names, Countries, Works, Terms. Translation from French. Springer, Vienna 2004, ISBN 3-211-83748-5 , p. 136 f.

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Helmut Johnson (2006) material on attachment theory and systemic work in education and care (with a description of Bowlby's work from page 13). (PDF, 20 pages, 72 kB, archived).
  2. Kathrin Keller-Schuhmacher (2010) Attachment - from theory to practice: what is important? Presentation at the AWO conference on November 8, 2010 in Freiburg i.Br., (PDF, 10 pages, 111 kB, archived).
  3. ^ R. Bowlby, P. King: Fifty Years of Attachment Theory: Recollections of Donald Winnicott and John Bowlby. Karnac Books, 2004, ISBN 1-85575-385-5 , p. 17.
  4. R. Balloff: The work of John Bowlby. FU Berlin.
  5. ^ Deceased Fellows. British Academy, accessed May 8, 2020 .
  6. ↑ Attachment disorders. From attachment theory to therapy . Internet publication for general and integrative psychotherapy, September 9, 2000, ISSN 1430-6972.
  7. ^ Alfred Pritz (ed.): One hundred masterpieces of psychotherapy . Vienna / New York, NY (USA) 2008, ISBN 978-3-211-25214-7 , pp. 33 f .