Introduction to the Bowlby Interview

Milton Senn’s evocative interview with John Bowlby reminds us, on the centenary of Bowlby’s birth, of the tremendous impact of Bowlby’s work on separation and attachment.  If the only impact of this work had been on allowing parents to remain in the hospital with their sick children, that would be a contribution which has affected nearly every family.  But his ideas have permeated the family courts which address issues of divorce, custody and visitation.  And, of course, attachment theory has had a major impact on the transition from residential care in large orphanages to foster care and family preservation.  No other development in psychoanalytic theory has directly affected so many children, families and arenas of public policy.

The interview offers biographical information found in other sources.  However, it uniquely highlights the contributions of social work and social workers to Bowlby’s thinking and the development of attachment theory.  Bowlby highlights his early experience in child guidance where he “worked with two social workers who were analytically oriented and who were interested to understand the problems of the parents in terms of their own psychological histories…  They were excellent people, they were doing excellent work and I learned a hell of a lot from them.  I learned far more from those two social workers than I learned from my psychiatric colleagues…”  

When Bowlby recalled his arrival at Tavistock after the War, he highlighted the hiring of Noel Hunnybun as his senior social worker.  But his most important social work collaborator was James Robertson (who initiated a series of films about children and separation, most notably A Two-Year Old Goes to the Hospital.  This film, and Robertson’s and Bowlby’s courageous effort to share it with an array of professional and lay audiences, was likely the most influential endeavor of psychoanalytic social work advocacy in the twentieth century.  It is not an understatement to suggest that it transformed the practice of hospital pediatrics on both sides of the Atlantic.  And, in doing so, it highlighted issues of attachment in a setting that is familiar to almost all parents and professionals.

Elsewhere, I have explored how social work has influenced the development of contemporary psychoanalysis, most notably in the collaboration of Clare and Donald Winnicott (Kanter 1990, 1997, 2000, 2004a, 2004b) on many important concepts of object relations theory.  Bowlby’s remarks, highlighting the importance of social workers in his professional development and contributions, point to yet another arena of synergy.

Near the end of the interview, Bowlby offers the social work profession an indirect compliment: “I get a lot of invitations to speak--I am very selective.  A lot of social work groups invite me.  I do not accept; they already know it all, so it’s unnecessary.”


Kanter, J: Community-Based Management of Psychotic Clients: The Contributions of D. W. and Clare Winnicott. Clinical Social Work Journal, 18(1):23-41, Spring 1990.

Kanter, J: Psychoanalysis and Social Work: A One-Way Street?   National Membership 
Committee on Psychoanalysis Newsletter, 13, 5, Spring 1997.  

Kanter, J: The Untold Story of Clare and Donald Winnicott: How Social Work Influenced Modern Psychoanalysis.  Clinical Social Work Journal, 28(3), 245-261, Fall 2000.

Kanter, J: Face to Face with Children: The Life and Work of Clare Winnicott.  London: Karnac Books, 2004.

Kanter, J: “Let’s Never Tell Him What to Do”: Clare Britton's Transformative Impact on Donald Winnicott. American Imago, 61 (4), December 2004.

Robertson, James, and Robertson, Joyce.  Separation and the Very Young.  London: Free Association Books, 1990.