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John Bowlby (1907-90)

John Bowlby was a British psychiatrist and psychoanalyst. He is best known for his work on the effects of separating infants and young children from their mothers. His work gained wide recognition when he collaborated with James Robertson in the production of the film A Two-Year Old Goes to the Hospital (1952). The film is about a two-and-a-half-year-old girl, Laura, who experiences an eight-day period of separation from her parents, and her mother especially, when admitted to hospital. It quite literally documents the impact of maternal deprivation on children when separated from their primary careers. The film’s most moving segment depicts a traumatised toddler on a hospital ward without her parents. It was filmed through a window, with only the sound of the child’s screams silenced. Her suffering is nevertheless evident. This film was instrumental in a campaign to alter hospital restrictions on visiting by parents.

Interestingly, biographical material relating to Bowlby suggests that much of his work grew directly out of his own life experiences. Born into an upper-middle-class family, Bowlby and his five siblings were not raised by their mother, but a nanny. While a child, he saw his mother for no more than an hour a day, usually after teatime. When he was four, his nanny, Bowlby’s primary career, left the family. The event traumatised the young Bowlby. He later described this separation as having been as tragic as the loss of his mother. At age seven, he was also sent to boarding school, visiting his family only during the holidays.

He displayed an unusual sensitivity to the suffering of young children throughout his working life.

 

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Bibliography

S van Dijken, John Bowlby: His Early Life: A Biographical Journey into the Roots of Attachment Theory (London: Free Association Books, 1998)

H. Hendrick, ‘Children’s emotional well-being and mental health in early post-second World War Britain: the case of hospital visiting’, in M Gijswijt-Hofstra and H Marland (eds), Cultures of Child Health in Britain and the Netherlands in the Twentieth Century (Amsterdam: Rodopi, 2003), pp 213-242

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