John Bowlby: The Father of Attachment Theory

By Richard Brodie

The importance of motherly love has been recorded throughout history.  A mother lovingly cradling her baby is one of the most potent visual and emotional symbols in all cultures.  The most venerated symbol of Christianity itself, after the Cross, is the Nativity, with the Virgin Mary looking adoringly down at the Christ child cradled in her arms.  So important is motherly love in most cultures that the lack of it is felt intuitively to be catastrophic for the fate of the child.  And devotees of English literature all know of Charles Dickens depiction of nineteenth-century London’s dreary orphanages, and of the emotional deprivation of its sad and tiny residents!

Pioneer of Attachment Theory

John Bowlby Attachment TheoryJohn Bowlby, the mid-twentieth-century English psychologist, is widely credited with having put a “scientific” name to motherly love and to the widely held assumptions as to its importance to the mother’s child.  He called his premises Attachment Theory.  Bowlby’s primary thesis is that the success of all relationships or “attachments” in life is dependent of the success of the first one, namely, of the bond between the infant or small child and his mother or primary caregiver.

As clinical and cold as the term “attachment” may sound, it nevertheless defines a phenomenon that the term “motherly love” does so only imperfectly, and that is the mutual love of mother or caregiver and child for each other!  In English this fills a linguistic void, for, oddly, no term in English exists to describe the other side of the equation of “motherly love”, namely, that of the love of a child for its parent.  Bowlby extended his theory to cover not just parent-child bonding or caregiver-child bonding, but eventually all human relationships that involve an emotional bond between one person and another.

Like so many experts on the effects of emotional deprivation, Bowlby was able to write from first-hand experience.  Born in 1907 and raised in the emotionally stifling manner of the traditional British upper-class family, Bowlby rarely saw his mother during the day, and was instead cared for by a nanny.  Shockingly by today’s standards, “too much” love and affection by a parent was thought to spoil a child!  When Bowlby was four, his nanny left the services of the family, an event that devastated the young boy.  At seven, again in the tradition of upper-class Britain, young Bowlby was sent off to boarding school, an environment so emotionally impoverished that Bowlby would later write that he “wouldn’t send a dog away” to such a place!

John Bowlby: Attachment and Loss SeminarAt the University of Cambridge, Bowlby studied psychology, and upon graduation worked with maladjusted and delinquent children.  He then enrolled in University College Hospital in London in the field of medicine, and later completed the requirements necessary to become a psychoanalyst.  In 1938 he became the head of Trinity College.  During World War II Bowlby did extensive work with child refugees from Europe who had been torn away from their parents, as well as with English children who were deliberately separated from their parents to protect them from the German air raids on London.  By the late 1950s Bowlby had accumulated a body of theoretical and theoretical work to indicate the fundamental importance for human development of attachment from birth.

While working for the World Health Organization, Bowlby wrote “Maternal Care and Mental Health” in 1951, in which he developed his theory on maternal deprivation.  In 1956 he began his defining work, the three-volume Attachment, the first volume of which was published in 1969 and the final volume in 1974.  In his last volume Bowlby propounded the theory that attachment behavior is essentially an evolutionary mechanism for protecting the infant from predators.  He died in 1990 in Scotland survived by his wife and four children.


Want to know more about John Bowlby and the legacy of his research? Check out Child Development Media's products on child attachment!

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