About W. R. D. Fairbairn

William Ronald Dodds Fairbairn (1889-1964) is now recognised as a key figure in the development of psychoanalysis with regard to childhood and development. He undertook early work on the effects of child abuse and the impact of repressed or recovered memories. Contrary to Freud, Fairbairn sets issues of child psychiatry in the context of family and other social relationships rather than viewing the individual as an isolated subject of analysis. Recent research situates Fairbairn within a distinct Scottish tradition in theories of selfhood, along with philosopher John Macmurray (whose papers are also held by EUL) and psychiatrist Ian Suttie. Fairbairn’s interdisciplinary interests in ethical and artistic theory, coupled with practical therapy and analysis, give him a particular relevance in modern medicine.

Fairbairn studied at the University of Edinburgh (MA 1911, MD 1929) and served during the First World War. He visited Craiglockhart Hospital where W.H.R. Rivers was working with shell-shocked soldiers, and his experiences apparently determined him to become a psychoanalyst. He worked as a physician and medical psychologist at Edinburgh hospitals and lectured on Psychology and Philosophy, before moving into full-time private practice as a psychoanalyst. His broad interests led him to develop independent, critical and creative approaches.

There is significant current research interest in the origins and development of Fairbairn’s theories, which can only be met by cataloguing and conserving his collections. His work in hospitals, as a university teacher and as a private psychoanalyst, is reflected in his extensive archive with his notebooks, correspondence and records of consultations. His heavily-annotated book collection shows that he was reading closely the works of contemporaries and generating critical responses. When the collections are catalogued our understanding of Fairbairn and his place in 20th century medicine will be transformed.

Fairbairn’s main lifetime publication was “Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality” (1952, reprinted in 1990). His uncollected papers were gathered together in “From Instinct to Self: Selected Papers of W.R.D. Fairbairn” (ed. Scharff & Birtles,1994). A biography by John Sutherland was published as “Fairbairn’s Journey into the Interior” (1989). Recent studies include Graham Clarke, “Personal Relations Theory: Fairbairn, Macmurray, and Suttie” (2006). The latest work by David Scharff and Graham Clarke is “Fairbairn and the Object Relations Tradition” (2014), which emphasises Fairbairn’s object relations theory as a foundation for modern clinical thought and suggests that social, cultural and historical dimensions can all be illuminated by his work.

Images on the site are reproduced by permission of the National Library of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh.

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