Edward John Mostyn Bowlby is, together with Mary Ainsworth, the founder of attachment theory. In this theory, Bowlby tried to explain the way in which infants establish ties with their mothers or caregivers, and he explored the emotional consequences of disrupted ties.
Bowlby grew up in a typical upper-middle-class family in London. His father, a leading surgeon, was often absent. He was cared for by a nanny and nursemaids. In 1918, he was sent to boarding school. He was further educated at Dartmouth Royal Naval College and Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied medicine and psychology. He then worked at a progressive school for maladjusted children. This school’s view that the present problems of children stemmed from adverse experiences in their families in the past struck a chord with Bowlby. To further explore this field of interest, he completed his medical studies and started at psychiatry and psychoanalysis.
From his first publication (1938) onward, the link between mother-child separation and the later personality development of the child was his major theme. In 1946, he joined the staff of the Children’s Department of the Tavistock Clinic, where he remained until his retirement in 1972. Within this department, he was able to establish a research unit to examine the effects on young children of separation from the mother. One of the co-workers in this clinic was Mary Ainsworth, who later translated the basic tenets of attachment theory into empirical findings. She also developed a research instrument (the Strange Situation) for studying attachment of children to their mothers under laboratory conditions.
A breakthrough in Bowlby’s career was his 1951 report on the mental health of homeless children at the invitation of the World Health Organization. This report, which was translated into 14 languages, highlighted the importance of continuing loving care by the mother figure for a young child’s healthy development. He found the theoretical framework for the effects discussed in the WHO monograph in the supplementation of his analytical knowledge with ethological insights. Bowlby laid down his theory in his well-known trilogy Attachment (1969), Separation (1973), and Loss (1980). Bowlby’s work has had (and still has) a great impact. Child care practices were improved on the basis of his ideas. Much fruitful research has been prompted by his theory. Many clinicians are finding his insights and approach useful.
- Attachment theory and research at Stony Brook. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.psychology.sunysb.edu/attachment/
- Bowlby, J. (1979). The making and breaking of affectional bonds. London: Tavistock
- Karen, R. (1994). Becoming attached: Unfolding the mystery of the infant-mother bond and its impact on later life. New York: Warner
- Van Dijken, (1998). John Bowlby: His early life. A biographical journey into the roots of attachment theory. London/New York: Free Association Books.