John Bowlby was a 20th century psychologist and psychiatrist best known for his research into attachment formation and his development of attachment theory.

Early Life

Edward John Mostyn Bowlby was born on February 26, 1907 in London. He was raised in a family of six children, and his primary caregiver was a nanny. As was typical for upperclass families in Britain at that time, Bowlby had very little interaction with his mother. He developed a deep attachment to his nanny, perhaps foreshadowing his later interest in attachment formation. Bowlby’s father, Sir Anthony Alfred, was a baronet and a member of the medical staff to the king. 

The nanny left the household when Bowlby was four years old, and he experienced a sense of deep loss. He was sent to a boarding school at the age of seven; he later argued that boarding school was detrimental to his well-being. He did not believe that separation from the family was productive to children at such a young age, although he did theorize that removal from a dysfunctional home environment could potentially benefit an older child.

Professional Life

Bowlby studied psychology at Trinity College, Cambridge, where he excelled academically. He went on to study medicine at the University College Hospital in London and enroll in the Institute for Psychoanalysis. Upon graduation, he began working at the Maudsley Hospital as a psychoanalyst. Bowlby was a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War II and continued in the field of medicine as Deputy Director of the Tavistock Clinic. He worked briefly with the World Health Organization as a mental health consultant during the 1950s.

At the Child Guidance Clinic in London, Bowlby began to explore issues relating to maladapted children, a demographic that piqued his interest. Bowlby took a particular interest in the number of orphans who were separated from their families during the war, and he examined the work of Anna Freud, Rene Spitz, and Dorothy Burlingham. Bowlby developed his own theories on attachment and child development from years of research, observation, and experience.

Bowlby married Ursula Longstaff and had four children. He died in 1990.

Contribution to Psychology

Bowlby closely examined the generational impact of attachment and how it affected behavior. He believed that attachment behaviors were inherent survival mechanisms designed to protect an infant or child from predators. Children who were securely attached to reliable caregivers, according to Bowlby, were more likely to survive into adulthood. According to Bowlby, children could end up insecurely attached if their parents were unreliable or abusive caregivers, and this attachment could affect the formation of later relationships and parenting style and skill. Consequently, attachment style has an intergenerational component, with an insecurely attached parent potentially passing her insecure attachment style to her child.

Bowlby believed that a child’s healthy psychological development depended on a safe and functional relationship with a parent or caregiver. Bowlby theorized that attachment begins in infancy through a bond between the child and the most present, attentive caregiver. Because this figure is typically the mother, most of Bowlby's research was based upon the relationship between mothers and children. This first relationship forms the basis of the internal working models for the child, influencing his or her thoughts, feelings, and expectations with regards to subsequent relationships. Bowlby worked closely with Mary Ainsworth, his student and eventual colleague, who would go on to develop the Strange Situation Test that measures a child’s attachment to his or her caregivers.

Bowlby’s theories on maternal deprivation were embraced by the World Health Organization and were directly responsible for radical changes in the care of hospitalized children in Europe. Bowlby stressed the importance of the maternal bond to the child’s psychological well-being, and this led to revised visitation regulations and interventions for homeless and orphaned children. Because Bowlby believed that much of the data relating to separation of children was outdated and sparse, he used his own experience with delinquent and orphan children to expound his attachment theory.

Bowlby's work was heavily drawn from concepts in evolutionary biology, and much of his reasoning was based upon ethology—the study of animal behavior. His research is often viewed as an early form of evolutionary psychology, and his final book, published posthumously, was a biography of Charles Darwin entitled Charles Darwin: A New Life. The book addresses the mysterious illness Darwin experienced late in life and speculates that it may have been psychosomatic.


Bowlby's research has been embraced in popular scientific literature and has contributed to the concept of "attachment parenting," a phrase adopted by pediatrician William Sears. Sears advocates this parenting style based partially upon Bowlby's research. Parents who practice this style of parenting focus on developing secure, stable attachments with their children using techniques such as breastfeeding, frequent physical contact, and co-sleeping.