John Bowlby: biography (and the foundations of his theory of affection)

It may seem obvious today to think that the relationship between a mother and her baby is of great importance in human development, but this idea has not always been so obvious.

The idea of ​​the importance of tilt in childhood has often been present in different societies, but this would only be when the theory of affection was created in which the effects of its presence or absence would be analyzed. This theory was developed by John Bowlby, of whom we leave you a brief biography..

John Bowlby biography

Edward John Mostyn Bowlby, better known as John Bowlby, was born in London on February 26, 1907. Son of Sir Anthony Alfred Bowlby, who would have the title of baron as surgeon of the royal household, and of Mary Bridget Mostyn , He did his studies. as the fourth of six brothers in a rich environment of upper bourgeois society.

At that time, the upper classes left the little ones in the care of the service, having babysitters to take care of them.


John Bowlby’s early years were spent in the care of a caregiver named Minnie, who had little contact with his mother. Nevertheless, to the four years this one would leave the domestic service of the family, causing him to its game a great suffering and a feeling of loss to the little one. Although she was replaced, the new babysitter had a cold character that didn’t make her comfortable.

In 1914, World War I broke out, which caused the child’s father to enlist and become an absent figure that Bowlby and his siblings would have little news of if they did not share the contents with their parents. of the letters he sent.

A few years later, he would be sent to a boarding school, in part to protect them in the event of an attack. This set of events would do you a lot of harm, probably contributed to the fact that over time he felt the need to work on aspects such as the, Separation anxiety and fear of loss in minors.

academic training

After several years of boarding school, he studied at Dartnorth Naval School. After that he will try to study medicine at the University of Cambridge, but during these studies he began to be attracted to psychology and left them to later start training in psychology at Trinity College of the same university. from Cambridge. His main interest was childhood and the period of development.

After graduating, he began to do various studies on delinquent and maladjusted juveniles, noting that they often came from unstructured families or had been abused.

He joined the British Psychoanalytical Society

In 1929 he enrolled at the University School of London, finishing his studies in medicine (as well as in surgery) in 1934. But his preoccupations with psychology were not over, training in psychoanalysis.

In 1937, he will be accepted as a psychoanalyst in the British Psychoanalytical Society, analyzed among others by Rivière. After that, he would be trained by Melanie Klein in the psychoanalysis of children and start to perform analyzes of children. Despite their connection to this author, the perspectives of the two will be different, giving Bowlby greater emphasis on environmental and parental factors and the actual relationship between mother or maternal figure and child. This will lead him to be rejected and criticized by the psychoanalytic school for having neglected aspects as central to this theory as the unconscious.

In 1938 he married Ursula Longstaff, with whom he had four children. That same year, he would receive a proposal to chair Trinity College, which he would accept. In addition, he started working in the child psychiatry unit at a clinic in Canonbury. However, World War II will lead him to be recruited. He would get the post of lieutenant colonel in the medical profession.

Tavistock Clinic and participation in WHO

After the war, he accepted a post of deputy director of the Tavistock Clinic in 1950, being able to see firsthand the effects of the war on the psyches of his patients. In this clinic he would eventually coincide and work with Ainsworth (who would later expand his theory of the disease and make many contributions in this regard).

This year, Bowlby would also begin to be consulted with the World Health Organization to provide advice on the possible mental health of children who were left homeless after the war. This contribution would go a long way in creating the Charter of the Rights of the Child over time.

In the following years, the author will carry out numerous experiments and studies which would allow him to understand the development of the child.. Maternal Care and Mental Health would be one of his most prestigious publications of the time, being the preamble to his attachment theory.

Formulation of the theory of affection

Bowlby’s best-known contribution to psychology would develop between 1969 and 1980, giving rise to the theory of affection as description of the relationship between childhood emotional experiences and relationships and behavior, Establish the need to forge bonds of secure affection.

Aspects such as the effects of abandonment or ambivalence and the innate need for maternal care generated by the feeling of affection are studied. The condition is described as a coping mechanism based on the search for protection against possible hostile agents, as well as on the consequences of severing this link or not meeting this need.

Death and inheritance

Bowlby retired in 1972, although he continued to write for the rest of his life and do research. This important psychoanalyst died on the Scottish Isle of Skye on September 2, 1990, at the age of eighty-three.

His legacy is vast: although his theory has undergone several modifications and has been interpreted by several authors, he continues to show a great influence in psychology by emphasizing the importance of the emotional bond with our parental figures in childhood. It also allowed the development of different techniques and mechanisms of evaluation, such as the strange situation of Ainsworth.

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