John Bowlby

An English psychiatrist who, in conjunction with Mary Ainsworth (1913–99), is credited with the origination of attachment theory, particularly regarding the bonding between a mother and her infant.

John Bowlby.

John Bowlby.
(© Ullstein Bild/Getty Images)

Edward John Mostyn Bowlby was born in London on February 26, 1907, to Major Sir Anthony Bowlby and the former May Mostyn. Sir Anthony was a physician who served as surgeon to King George V. When John, the fourth of six children, was born, his father was 52 and his mother was 40. His childhood was typical of many middle-and upper-class children in London: his early years were spent with a nanny or governess, followed by boarding school at age seven. Bowlby attended Trinity College in Cambridge, where he prepared for medical school. He volunteered for a year at a clinic for maladjusted and delinquent children, an experience that helped set the stage for his later work.

Immediately after graduation from medical school at University College Hospital in London, Bowlby embarked on psychoanalytic training at the British Psychoanalytic Institute, where he was supervised by Melanie Klein (1882–1960). Although Bowlby did not agree with many of Klein's theories, her guidance helped him to ground his later research. He trained in psychiatry at the prestigious Maudsley Hospital.

After completing medical and psychoanalytic studies, Bowlby stayed on at Maudsley. His initial specialization was in adult psychiatry, but his focus gradually shifted to work with children. His first empirical study tracked 44 children whose behavior patterns included anxiety and petty crime. He discovered a common thread among these children: They had been separated from their mothers at some point during their childhood.

During World War II (1939–45), Bowlby conducted studies on officer-selection criteria for the military. This gave him a chance to develop expertise in the use of statistics, which facilitated his experimental research after the war. In 1946 he joined the staff of the Tavistock Clinic in London, where he spent the remainder of his career. During his years at Tavistock, Bowlby was intrigued by the work of ethologist Konrad Lorenz, who researched imprinting (the way in which young birds identify the first creature they see upon hatching as their mother). Lorenz's study strengthened his belief that early experience influences later behavior. From 1950 to 1952, Bowlby served as a consultant for the World Health Organization, working with orphaned and institutionalized children who had been separated from their mothers. His report, entitled “Maternal Child Care and Child Health” (1951), stated that children who were deprived of their birth mothers needed a substitute mother figure; lack of a mother or substitute mother figure would adversely affect children later in life.

Although Bowlby officially retired in 1972, he remained active in research and writing. He continued his association with Tavistock, but he also spent more time with his family at his vacation home on the Isle of Skye, off the coast of Scotland. In 1938, he had married Ursula Longstaff, with whom he had four children. His final book, a biography of Charles Darwin, was published in 1990, only months before his fatal stroke on September 2, 1990.

See also Ainsworth, Mary; Attachment ; Ethology ; Lorenz, Konrad; Grief .



Bell, David C. The Dynamics of Connection: How Evolution and Biology Create Caregiving and Attachment. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2010.

Bowlby, John. A Secure Base: Clinical Applications of Attachment Theory. Hoboken, NJ: Taylor and Francis, 2012.

Eagle, Morris N. Attachment and Psychoanalysis: Theory, Research, and Clinical Implications. New York: Guilford, 2013.

Goldberg, Susan, et al. Attachment Theory: Social, Developmental, and Clinical Perspectives. Hoboken, NJ: Taylor and Francis, 2013.

Holmes, Paul, and Steve Farnfield. The Routledge Handbook of Attachment Theory. New York: Routledge, 2014.

Music, Graham. Nurturing Natures: Attachment and Children's Emotional, Sociocultural, and Brain Development. Hove, UK: Psychology Press, 2011.

Otto, Hiltrud, and Heidi Keller. Different Faces of Attachment: Cultural Variations on a Universal Human Need. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014.


Williams, Lawrence E., and John A. Bargh. “Experiencing Physical Warmth Promotes Interpersonal Warmth.” Science 322, no. 5901 (October 24, 2008): 606–07.


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