Professor Sir Michael Rutter, who has died aged 88, was the first ever professor of child psychiatry in the UK and was particularly known for his research into the early years of children’s emotional development.
In the postwar years, this field was dominated by the attachment theory of John Bowlby, which grew put of work he did with delinquent children, many of whom, he found, had experienced early and prolonged separation from their mothers before the age of five.
He concluded that “a child’s development is contingent on exclusive maternal care, that maternal separation from the child disrupts the attachment process, and that, therefore, mothers with young children should not work.”
Policy-makers trying to find jobs for men returning from the war adopted the theory with enthusiasm as it provided a justification for making women relinquish jobs they had taken over during the conflict. Mothers, they insisted, should stay at home. In 1951 the World Health Organisation even declared that day nurseries would cause “permanent damage to the emotional health of a future generation”.
In 1972 Rutter published Maternal Deprivation Reassessed, in which he demonstrated that the main attachment between a baby and carer was not always with the mother (in a third of cases it was with the father) and that a warm bond with a mother substitute could not only succeed, but that it was the norm for children to form multiple attachments.
Crucially, he showed that successful attachments do not develop simply because the baby spends a lot of time with one individual, the intensity and the warmth and stability of the interaction being more important than its duration.
Rutter went on to observe that Bowlby’s observations of the emotional and intellectual impairment suffered by the children he studied were not due solely to the lack of attachment to a mother figure, but to factors such as the lack of intellectual stimulation and social experiences which attachments normally provide, while anti-social behaviour was not linked to maternal deprivation as such, but to family discord (divorce, for example).
After the end of Nicolae Ceauşescu’s regime in Romania in 1989, Rutter led the English and Romanian Adoptees Study Team, following many of the orphans adopted under the age of two into Western families into their teens, in a series of studies on the …….