John Bowlby and Child Psychology

  • Education
  • 1936

The seminal research and theory explaining the development of young children was formulated by a British psychiatrist named John Bowlby, whose career was built largely on American philanthropy. In the 1920s, the new Commonwealth Fund of New York, endowed by the Harkness family of Standard Oil fortune, was investing heavily in child welfare (see 1918 entry) in the U.S., and also in Britain. With a very substantial grant they established the biggest facility in London for treating the social and mental disorders of children, called the London Child Guidance Clinic. In 1936, John Bowlby was appointed there as a child psychiatry fellow, where he developed understanding of how deeply a child’s personality is shaped by family interactions during the first years of life (an insight now taken as commonplace, but only because Bowlby and colleagues demonstrated it uncontestably).

Bowlby and other social workers developed stellar reputations during World War II for work they did in aiding war-disturbed children. In response, Britain passed an Education Act in 1944 requiring establishment throughout the country of child-guidance clinics like the one created by the Commonwealth Fund. Bowlby was invited to take over the children’s department of the Tavistock Clinic, where medical treatment was paid for by the government health service (characterized by Bowlby as “stable, rigid, limiting”) but the pioneering research was paid for by private funding (“unstable but it could do what it liked,” as the grateful Bowlby commented).

To support his research on the effects of maternal deprivation on children, Bowlby received a small grant from a British foundation that allowed him to hire a social worker who did many of the nursery observation that became the grist for Bowlby’s studies. A short time later, Bowlby won a grant from the Josiah Macy Foundation, a New York donor then focused on treating traumatic shock and other war-related disorders. This gift allowed him to bring in Mary Ainsworth, another pioneer of child-development theory whose collaborations with Bowlby established much of the central understanding of the field. (The Macy Foundation was simultaneously supporting animal-behavior researchers who Bowlby drew upon while formulating his theories.)

Then in 1957, Bowlby won philanthropic support “on a very big scale,” as he put it, from the Ford Foundation. This sustained Bowlby’s research through his most productive years. It in turn led to a grant from what was known as the Foundations’ Fund for Research in Psychiatry (a pooling of money from three U.S. donors leading this area: the Ford, Woods Kalb, and William Grant foundations).

Private donor support thus allowed Bowlby to pull together pathbreaking research and assemble it into coherent explanations of how young children develop, why secure family life is so important to their future happiness and educability, and what can go wrong when well-meaning social interventions overlook family attachments. Fifty years later, Bowlby’s central elaborations of child psychology are still the reigning wisdom.