Birthday: February 26, 1907
Died At Age: 83
Sun Sign: Pisces
Also Known As: Edward John Mostyn Bowlby
Born Country: England
Born in: Bournemouth, London, England
Famous as: Psychologist
father: Anthony Bowlby
mother: Mary Bridget Mostyn
siblings: Charles James Mostyn Bowlby, Dorothy Evelyn Mostyn Bowlby, Frances Winifred Mostyn Bowlby, Marion Ellen Mostyn Bowlby, Tony Bowlby
Died on: September 2, 1990
place of death: Isle of Skye, Scotland
Cause of Death: Stroke
education: UCL Medical School, University of Cambridge, University College Hospital, Trinity College
awards: Thomas William Salmon Medal
Who was John Bowlby?
Edward John Mostyn Bowlby, CBE, FRCP, FRCPsych, was a developmental psychologist, psychoanalyst, and psychiatrist who garnered fame for his groundbreaking work in attachment theory. According to a 2002 survey conducted by the ‘Review of General Psychology,’ he is the 49th most-cited psychologist of the 20th century. A London native, Bowlby hailed from an upper-middle-income family. In accordance with the norm of his class in Britain at the time, his parents maintained a considerable distance from him and his siblings, and they were raised by a nanny. Despite this, he initially wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a surgeon. However, he later decided to pursue a career in psychology. He was educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and the University College Hospital before enrolling at the Maudsley Hospital for training in adult psychiatry. In 1936, he completed his qualification as a psychoanalyst. In the following year, he joined the London Child Guidance Clinic and worked there until 1940. In 1946, he became a member of the staff of the Tavistock Institute in London. One of the most important moments of his career was the publication of his 1951 report, at the behest of the World Health Organisation, on the mental health of homeless children in post-war Europe.
Childhood & Early Life
Born on February 26, 1907, in London, England, John Bowlby was the fourth of six children of Sir Anthony Alfred Bowlby and Mary Bridget Mostyn. He and his siblings were brought up by Nanny Friend.
His father was appointed the surgeon of the British royal household. Anthony and Mary were rarely involved in the upbringing of the children, as it was believed by the people of their class at the time that parental attention and affection would spoil the child.
While he was growing up, Bowlby spent only one hour a day after teatime with his mother. During World War I, his father served in the British military. He visited home once or twice a year and did not have much interaction with his children.
When he was seven, Bowlby’s parents put him in a boarding school, which was yet another norm for people of his social status. His parents enrolled him and his older brother Tony at a prep school to keep them safe from the bombing attacks after the war broke out. He wrote about the emotions he was feeling during this period in his 1972 work ‘Separation: Anxiety and Anger’.
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Initially, John Bowlby wanted to become a surgeon, just like his father. According to Bowlby, he was even encouraged to do so by Anthony. He subsequently joined Trinity College to study anatomy and natural sciences. However, he soon found that he lacked interest in the subjects and acquired a passion for developmental psychology.
He subsequently left medicine in his third year and started attending classes of psychology and pre-clinical sciences.
He graduated from Trinity in 1928 and then devoted a year to serve as a volunteer teacher at two schools for children with behavioural difficulties, Bedales and Priory Gate.
Around 1929, John Bowlby enrolled at the University College Hospital, London. While studying there, he joined the British Psychoanalytic Institute. After obtaining his medical qualification in 1933, he began his training in adult psychiatry at the Maudsley Hospital in London. In 1936, he became qualified as a psychoanalyst.
Bowlby spent the first six months of World War II at a clinic in Canonbury in the child psychiatry unit. Later, he was appointed a lieutenant colonel in the Royal Army Medical Corps. During this period, he researched the psychological methods of officer selection, which played a pivotal role in the establishment of the War Office Selection Boards.
According to Bowlby, besides working at the Royal Army Medical Corps, he also served at the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) between May and June in 1940. There, he had patients that were suffering from tragic war neurosis.
The children who were receiving treatment at the Canonbury clinic were moved to the child guidance clinic in Cambridge due to the air raids. Bowlby, who worked with these children, travelled back and forth between Cambridge and London, where he had opened a private practice.
As the war broke out, Bowlby started writing his first published work, ‘Forty-four Juvenile Thieves’ (1944). He interacted with 44 troubled children from Canonbury and compared his experience with them with his experience with the underage patients at the Canonbury clinic.
After the war ended, he was appointed the deputy director of the Tavistock Clinic. In 1950, he became the mental health consultant to the World Health Organization.
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His 1951 report on the mental health of homeless children in post-war Europe was translated into 14 languages. In it, Bowlby demonstrated the importance of the positive influence of the constant loving care by a mother figure on the development of an infant.
In the 1950s, John Bowlby began corresponding with several European ethologists, including Niko Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz, and Robert Hinde. He was advised to pursue ethology further to gain knowledge about his own research in psychoanalysis by evolutionary biologist, Julian Huxley.
Bowlby aimed to revitalize psychoanalysis in order to create a focal point around a concrete theory for this field. He believed that psychoanalysis did not have that.
By utilizing various perceptions of ethology and thoroughly studying ethology literature, Bowlby created new explanatory concepts for what became known as human attachment behaviour.
His final work was a biography of Charles Darwin, titled ‘Charles Darwin: A New Life’, which was released posthumously in 1992. Bowlby devotes a prominent part of the book to the discussion of Darwin's "mysterious illness" and the possibility of it being psychosomatic.
In essence, John Bowlby’s attachment theory is an attempt to comprehensively understand the dynamics of long-term and short-term interpersonal relationships between humans. He hypothesized that primate infants grow close to their progenitors due to evolutionary pressure, as attachment behaviour would assist the infant in surviving threats like predation and exposure to the elements.
Bowlby published his findings in a series of three books. Known together as the ‘Attachment and Loss’ trilogy, they are ‘Attachment’ (1969), ‘Separation: Anxiety and Anger’ (1972), and ‘Loss: Sadness and Depression’ (1980).
When Bowlby came up with the theory, it was exclusively about the early development of children. However, it now encompasses adult relationships as well. The ensuing consonant research has been dubbed as the most important achievement in psychological sciences.
Family & Personal Life
On April 16, 1938, John Bowlby exchanged wedding vows with Ursula Longstaff, the daughter of a surgeon. The couple had four children together: Mary Hamilton Victoria Ignatia Bowlby (born 1939); Sir Richard Peregrine Longstaff Bowlby, 3rd Bt. (1941); Pia Rose Whitworth Bowlby (1945); and Robert John Mostyn Bowlby (1948).
Death & Legacy
John Bowlby passed away on September 2, 1990, at his summer home on the Isle of Skye, Scotland. He was 83 years old at the time. He was buried at the cemetery of Trumpan Church, Waternish, the Isle of Skye. His wife, who passed away in 2000, is interred beside him.
While his ideas have received their share of criticism throughout the years, attachment theory has been hailed as the primary method to comprehend early social development. It has led to an immense increase in empirical research into the close bonds that children form.
There is a mountain in Kyrgystan that has been named after Bowlby.