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John Bowlby and James Robertson: theorists, scientists and crusaders for improvements in the care of children in hospital

Authors

  • Linda Alsop-Shields PhD FRCNA,

    1. National Health and Medical Research Council of Australia, Public Health Postdoctoral Research Fellow, and Adjunct Senior Lecturer, University of Queensland, Mater Children’s Hospital, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
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  • Heather Mohay PhD

    1. Associate Professor, Centre for Applied Studies in Early Childhood, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
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Linda Alsop-Shields, Mater Children’s Hospital, South Brisbane, Queensland 4101, Australia. E-mail: 1cm5ch@mater.org.au

Abstract

John Bowlby and James Robertson: theorists, scientists and crusaders for improvements in the care of children in hospital

Aims. John Bowlby and James Robertson, two men who were extremely influential in the latter part of the 20th Century, combined scientific theory with evangelism to bring about changes in the way in which children were cared for in hospitals and other institutions. This paper discusses their work together, their theories and their influence on the care of children and paediatric nursing.

Background. Bowlby and Robertson collaborated early in their working relationship on research about separation of mother and child. Bowlby was the scientist who developed classic theories about maternal separation. Robertson focused his research on separation of mother and child due to hospital admission. Between the two of them, they derived a classic theory about the phases of ‘protest’, ‘despair’ and ‘denial’ (Bowlby called this last stage ‘detachment’) through which small children pass when isolated from their mothers for a length of time.

Discussion. Bowlby became an internationally recognized theorist, widely acclaimed and considered an expert in the field of maternal care and child development. Robertson, with his wife, Joyce, not only continued Bowlby’s work investigating children separated from their mothers, but also took on the role of campaigner for the welfare of children in hospital. James Robertson, with his impressive speaking powers, established an international reputation proselytizing the need to admit parents to hospital with their children.  The work of Bowlby and Robertson coincided with new knowledge about cross-infection, which had been one of the reasons for excluding parents from hospital wards. At the same time, and influenced by their work, community groups, which championed the idea of admitting parents with their children, developed. The combination of these factors provided a catalyst for changes within the health systems of many developed countries. Because of the theoretical work of Bowlby and Robertson’s missionary zeal, government policies, staff attitudes and parents’ expectations changed. Children’s wards and hospitals in developed countries today admit parents as part of normal routine and actively involve them in the planning and implementation of their child’s care.

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