Murray Bowen

An American psychiatrist who was among the pioneers in the field of family therapy.

Murray Bowen grew up in a small town that he credited with giving him the foundation for his theories on family therapy. To Bowen, the family was an emotional unit: Although it is made up of individuals who have their own thoughts and needs, much of how they behave is the result of how they function as part of the family.

Bowen, the oldest of five children, was born on January 31, 1913, in Waverly, Tennessee. His parents were Jesse and Maggie Bowen; their families had lived in Tennessee since the time of the American Revolution. Jesse Bowen was mayor of Waverly, where he also ran several small businesses, including the funeral parlor.

Murray Bowen attended the University of Tennessee, graduating with a bachelor's degree in 1934. He then went to the University of Tennessee Medical School, where he received his M.D. in 1937. He completed internship in New York and, in 1941, enlisted in the U.S. Army. Before his military experience, he had planned to become a cardiac surgeon. His observations of soldiers in the midst of war, however, convinced him that assisting those experiencing mental illness was a more pressing and worthwhile goal. Upon leaving the army in 1946, he accepted a fellowship at the Menninger Foundation in Topeka, Kansas, where he studied psychoanalysis for several years. Over time, he came to believe that, despite Freud's success, his methods fell short in terms of recognizing the family as a unit with its own emotional needs and behaviors. Whereas Freud focused on the self, Bowen saw the family as a source of much of the behavior its members express. Each member operates as an individual, but does so within the family structure with its own set of rules.

Bowen moved to the National Institute of Mental Health in 1954 and then to Georgetown University Medical Center in 1959, where he remained for the rest of his career. In the late 1950s he further developed what he called his family systems theory. Bowen believed that family members adopt certain types of behavior based on their defined place in the family. Knowing this, a therapist can approach behavioral issues more efficiently and effectively.

Throughout his life, Bowen remained active in family therapy. He published more than 50 book chapters and scholarly articles on his relationship-based theories of family therapy. He was a founder of the American Family Therapy Association and its first president from 1978 to 1982. He died of lung cancer at his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland, on October 9, 1990.

See also Birth order ; Family therapy ; Systems psychology .



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Ko¨ nig, Karl. Brothers and Sisters: The Order of Birth in the Family: An Expanded Edition. Edinburgh: Floris Books, 2012.


Holt, Roberta. “Archives: Survival and the Family of Extinction.” Family Systems 8, no. 2 (2011): 143–61.


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Vermont Center for Family Studies. “What Are the Eight Interlocking Concepts of Bowen Family Systems Theory?” (accessed September 15, 2015).