Bowlby was born in 1907 to an upper-middle-class family in London. Growing up, he and his siblings were cared for by a nanny, receiving little affection from their parents who believed too much attention would spoil them. At the age of seven, Bowlby went to boarding school, before attending the University of Cambridge to study psychology during which time he worked with delinquent children. This experience had a considerable influence on the young student and inspired him to pursue a career in child psychiatry.
Prior to serving in the Second World War, Bowlby trained at the British Psychoanalytic Institute, qualifying as a psychoanalyst in 1937. Upon returning from his position with the Royal Army Medical Corps, he was commissioned by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to write a report on the mental health of homeless children in Europe. This resulted in the 1951 publication of Maternal Care and Mental Health, in which he began to flesh out his ideas on the significance of attachment on child development, placing emphasis on the importance of a warm, intimate and continuous relationship between young children and their mothers.
This paper, along with his work at the Tavistock Institute in London, set the foundations for what would later become his greatest contribution to the field of child psychiatry: attachment theory. Influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud and Konrad Lorenz, attachment theory concerns the relationship between two humans and the subsequent development that results, specifically between parents and their children.
According to Bowlby, attachment can be defined as a deep and enduring emotional bond between two people in which each seeks closeness and feels more secure when in the presence of the attachment figure. While mothers are usually associated with this role, Bowlby also believed that young children could form such bonds with others, just as he had experienced with one of his nannies when he was growing up.
Following the publication of his report for WHO - which was translated into more than twelve languages - Bowlby proceeded to lay out his theories in a three-volume work titled Attachment and Loss (1969-80). He was helped in his research by a student of his called Mary Ainsworth, who further extended and tested his ideas, playing a primary role in suggesting that not just one, but several attachment styles existed. As part of her research, she introduced a procedure known as ‘the strange situation’, involving a series of eight episodes lasting three minutes each, whereby a mother, child and stranger are introduced, separated and reunited. Her observations provided empirical evidence for Bowlby’s attachment theory and were included in his volume.
Bowlby’s work on the subject of attachment and child development had a significant and lasting impact on a number of areas, from psychology to child care and parenting. He died in September 1990 at the age of 83. His last published work was a biography of Charles Darwin, in which he explored the naturalist’s undiagnosed illnesses.
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