Famous February Psychologists: John Bowlby

John Bowlby’s life

John Bowlby was born in London on February 26, 1907. His father, Major General Sir Anthony Bowlby, was the royal surgeon of King Edward VII. John Bowlby won several prizes during his university career and received his first degree in preclinical science and then in psychology.

Later, John Bowlby began working at a state-of-the-art school for children, where he came into contact with disturbed children whose difficulties stemmed from their unhappy and fragmented childhood. At the same time, he met John Alford, who advised John Bowlby to go to London to follow training in psychoanalysis.

In the fall of 1920 John Bowlby returned to London following Alford’s suggestion, and in 1933, after completing his medical studies at University College Hospital, he attended psychiatry training; in 1936 he was assigned to the Child Guidance Clinic in London until 1940, when he became a psychiatrist of the British army. After the war, John Bowlby was appointed deputy director of Jock Sutherland of the prestigious Tavistock Clinic in London, with the specific task of developing a children’s department.

In 1950, on behalf of the World Health Organization, he developed a study on the mental health of orphans or children deprived of their families.

John Bowlby dedicated a great amount of time from 1964 to 1979 to the writing of his impressive trilogy: Attachment (1969), Separation (1973) and Loss (1980). He held many prestigious and important positions of consultancy and received many honors worldwide. He retired from the National Health Service and the Medical Research Council in 1972, but remained at the Tavistock Clinic.

In 1980 he was a professor at the University College of London and his lectures were transcribed and collected in books. Always mentally and physically active, at the age of seventy he began Darwin’s psychobiography, which he always admired. His eightieth birthday was celebrated in London with a conference attended by many. Three years later he suffered a stroke while in his town Skye with his family.

A few days later, on September 2, 1990, John Bowlby died. He was buried in Trumpan, in a small cemetery near Waternish, a wild place where he often went for long walks.

The theory of attachment

According to John Bowlby, picking up a crying baby is the most appropriate response of a mother to a sign of unease expressed by the child.

John Bowlby sensed that attachment plays a central role in the relationships between human beings, from birth to death. He showed how the harmonious development of an individual’s personality depends primarily on an appropriate attachment to the mother.
John Bowlby formulated the theory of attachment after reading the ethological works of Konrad Lorenz and Nikolaas Tinbergen.

According to Lorenz’s study baby ducklings deprived of the natural maternal figure, followed a human being or any other object, towards which they developed a strong bond that went beyond the simple request for nutrition. Harlow, in turn, had shown how, in a series of experiments, the little monkeys were attached to a puppet monkey made of cloth, spending up to eighteen hours a day attached to it, as they would have done with their natural mothers.

Why is it important?

The theory of attachment arises after careful and repeated observations of children and of mammals, during their first years of life.

John Bowlby argued that “attachment is an integral part of human behavior from the cradle to the grave” (Bowlby, 1982). The theory of attachment, inserted in the systemic, ethological and evolutionary perspective, proposes a new psychopathological model able to give general indications on how the personality of an individual begins to organize itself from the first years of life. Attachment theory provides valuable support for the study of phenomena related to childhood stories of severe abuse and neglect, related to the development of a wide spectrum of personality disorders, dissociative symptoms, anxiety disorders, depression and substance abuse alcoholic and narcotic.

J. Bowlby’s Publications:

Bowlby, J. (1944). Forty-four juvenile thieves: Their characters and home life. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 25(19-52), 107-127.

Bowlby, J. (1951). Maternal care and mental health. World Health Organization Monograph.

Bowlby, J. (1952). Maternal care and mental health. Journal of Consulting Psychology, 16(3), 232.

Bowlby, J. (1953). Child care and the growth of love. London: Penguin Books.

Bowlby, J. (1956). Mother-child separation. Mental Health and Infant Development, 1, 117-122.

Bowlby, J. (1957). Symposium on the contribution of current theories to an understanding of child development. British Journal of Medical Psychology, 30(4), 230-240.

Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment. Attachment and loss: Vol. 1. Loss. New York: Basic Books.

Bowlby, J. (1980). Loss: Sadness & depression. Attachment and loss (vol. 3); (International psycho-analytical library no.109). London: Hogarth Press.

Bowlby, J. (1988). Attachment, communication, and the therapeutic process. A secure base: Parent-child attachment and healthy human development, 137-157.

Bowlby, J., and Robertson, J. (1952). A two-year-old goes to hospital. Proceedings of the Royal Society of Medicine, 46, 425–427.

For more information on John Bowlby’s theory of attachment, please visit https://www.simplypsychology.org/bowlby.html


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