Biography of Murray Bowen

murray_bowenMurray Bowen was born in 1913, in Waverly, Tennessee, a small rural town sixty miles west of Nashville, where his family of origin, as other families in the community, lived for generations. Both of his parents grew up on farms in the area and Murray Bowen, the eldest of five siblings, grew up helping his mother prepare food from the fields, the garden, the orchards and the livestock pens of the family farm. Murray Bowen’s father, Jess Sewell Bowen, had an innate talent for reading the clues of the land, the weather, plants, animals, and people, and he passed his deep understanding of Nature on to his children. Jess Bowen worked in the family owned Luff-Bowen business that sold home goods and coffins, and later expanded to include a funeral home.

Murray Bowen earned his BS from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville in 1934, his MD from the University of Tennessee, Memphis in 1937, and did his residency at the Menninger Clinic in Topeka, Kansas. His experience as a surgical physician in World War II—where he saw as many psychiatric casualties as surgical ones—influenced his decision to work in psychiatry. So, in 1946, he joined the Menninger Foundation in Kansas where he chose to focus his research on moving Freudian theory toward the status of accepted science. During the next eight years following his training, his clinical and administrative duties led to his appointment as a full staff member. Also during these years, Bowen read widely in the natural sciences such as astronomy and physics, and in the life sciences such as botany, biology, anthropology, sociology, psychology and evolution. His daughter, Joanne Bowen, describes how her father’s path,

“…became one of an ethologist, a scientist who studies animal behavior and the social relationships that sustain life. … Having lived in a small rural community where families had lived for generations, he understood the important role social relationships play in sustaining the very fabric of an agricultural community. … Ultimately, he developed a natural systems theory about the biological basis of human relationships.” (J. Bowen, 2013, 2-3)

Two key factors influenced Bowen’s intellectual path away from Freudian theory. First, his reading shaped his conviction that humans, with their behaviors and feelings, are a product of evolution and a part of all life, with the corollary that a comprehensive theory of humans must be be grounded in the study of what humans have in common with other living species. This was a major departure from mainstream thinking that emphasizes what makes humans different from other species. Second, he observed that when he related to patients’ “mature side” by becoming emotionally neutral, they began to behave like responsible adults. In short, his neutral stance enabled the family to manage reactivity and function more calmly. As Bowen’s new ideas of a science-based natural systems theory formed, his departure from Freudian constructs—and Menninger—was inevitable. In order to better study the symbiotic nature of the mother-patient relationship, he searched for an institutional setting that would accommodate a research program that entailed hospitalizing family members along with the young adult patients. The National Institute of Mental Health met his critera, and so he relocated to Bethesda, Maryland in 1954.

The research project Dr. Bowen designed and directed during his five years at NIMH was groundbreaking. It was here that he developed the core concepts for what would become Bowen Family Systems Theory. An entire ward and staff team were devoted to inpatient work with adult schizophrenic women and their mothers. Bowen and his staff observed and recorded actual behavior (what he called “functional facts”) of family members in relation to one another. The emotional intensity in the mother-daughter relationships allowed Dr. Bowen and his staff to observe the family emotional process and relationship patterns in a way they had not been seen before. Years later, Bowen described the floodgate of new data and new thinking that opened up:

“The focus on the family instead of the individual provided a completely different thinking dimension. …With the families living together, I could see a completely different world. Years of work suddenly became clear. …The new view produced so many researchable clues, it was impossible to know which was most important.” (Bowen, 1982, 2-3.)

By late 1955, the project’s hypothesis had transformed from the conventional psychiatric understanding of schizophrenia as an intrapsychic disorder, to one that viewed the individual’s psychosis as a symptom of an active process involving all members of an anxious family. Patients’ fathers were now brought into the program, and with them the opportunity to identify triangles, a core component of Bowen systems theory. With the eventual addition of siblings, Bowen was able to elaborate on the permutations of triangles in modulating emotional process. When overinvolved staff members occasionally were drawn into family triangles, staff meetings reinforced a therapeutic boundary; staff were to remain neutral and supportive of patients’ and family members’ “mature side.” Emphasis was placed on being the change more than talking about it. As staff became skilled at relating to families without becoming part of the family emotional process, and reinforced families’ responsibility for managing their own relationships, the resulting family functional upswings bolstered Bowen’s systems theory.

Within two years of its beginning, the project focus had shifted from the symptomatic individual to the family as the unit of illness; individual therapy had been replaced with group family therapy; and, the project title had been changed from research into schizophrenia to the Family Study Project. Staff members periodically referenced models from the natural sciences to validate the developing theory. Bowen was careful and precise in his choice of language to describe the family emotional system. Terms such as symbiosis, fusion, and differentiation were taken from biology to show the common ground between the human family and other living systems in nature. Diagnostic language and interpretation were avoided to eliminate subjectivity from the research. Bowen believed scientific terminology would assist future researchers in availing themselves of the study’s results, and then building on them.

At thirty-eight months into the program, Dr. Bowen and his staff had laid the foundation of an observable, describable and effective treatment model of family therapy. Bowen viewed this research as work that would eventually evolve into a true science of human behavior. Halfway through the project, in March of 1957, he presented his findings at the annual American Orthopsychiatric Association meeting in Chicago, an event he later considered to be the birth of the idea of family therapy. During his remaining two years at NIMH, he further consolidated his theory with entire families living full or part-time on the ward. The theory expanded to include the following concepts: the emotional system, chronic anxiety, emotional distancing, reciprocal functioning, differentiation of self, triangles, the family projection process, and multigenerational family emotional process.

In 1959 Bowen took a faculty position in the Department of Psychiatry at Georgetown University Medical Center where he worked for the rest of his life. When he looked back at the Family Study Project many years later, he wrote, “The Bethesda experience may well have been the most fortunate in my life.” (Bowen, 1988, 370)

Bowen’s Georgetown years coincided with the surge of interest in family therapy in psychiatry and mental health. Methods of family therapy proliferated without a foundation of systems theory. The intellectual integrity that set Bowen’s contribution apart stemmed from his steadfast belief that family therapy must be grounded in theory, and family systems theory must be consistent with knowledge from the natural sciences. Dr. Bowen’s work, and the program he led at Georgetown, remained anchored in science during the next 20 years, as a burgeoning professional field veered into popular, but poorly founded treatment modalities.

Bowen’s steadfast commitment to his principles flowered in new enterprises. Building on his NIMH platform, he consolidated a systems model based on the life process of differentiation of self within an emotional system. The model applied at all levels: the nuclear family, the larger family of origin and extended family, the workplace, social systems, and large societal systems. The processes he had identified in the research families were equally observable in all families albeit at varying levels of intensity. The family as an emotional system was understood as a universal phenomenon.

The following benchmark events during his years at Georgetown reflect Bowen’s ongoing commitment and contributions to developing a science of human behavior:

1959–1974 Weekly conferences on the family for resident psychiatrists and interested psychiatry graduates; participants eventually included members of other mental health professionals
1961–1966 Integration of six separate concepts into a single theory
1962 Beginning of monthly professional meetings
1964 The launch of the annual Georgetown Family Symposium
1964–1978 Teaching/consulting at the Medical College of Virginia, incorporating the regular use of videotape to align family therapy with theory
1967 Bowen made a personal and theoretical breakthrough in a visit to his own parental family at an anxious time in the family. His ability to relate freely to all family members without reverting to old reactive patterns demonstrated to his satisfaction that an emotional system has a knowable structure and function. At the Family Research Conference later that year, Bowen presented his own family experience to his colleagues in a paper entitled: “On the Differentiation of Self.” The application of his principles to his own extended family established an unintended precedent for personal “family of origin work” among family therapists
1969 Establishment of a formal postgraduate training program
1972 An invitation from the Environmental Protection Agency to speak at a symposium on the environmental crisis provided the impetus for Bowen to organize years of observations and ideas on societal issues into an orderly conceptual framework. The result was his developing the concept of emotional process in society, an extension of family systems theory to the larger society.
1975 Relocation of all programs to an off-campus location named The Georgetown University Family Center. For the first time, a scientist was invited as the guest speaker at the annual Georgetown Family Symposium. All symposia since then have featured Distinguished Guest Lecturers who have been leading authorities in such diverse fields as history, sociobiology, ecology, primatology, evolution, neurobiology, genetics, and medicine.
1978 Publication of Murray Bowen’s collected papers: Family Therapy in Clinical Practice
1988 Publication of Bowen’s “An Odyssey Toward Science,” as the epilogue to Family Evaluation, by Michael E. Kerr, M.D.


In addition to his teaching, ongoing research and clinical work, Bowen held active memberships in professional societies, and served two consecutive terms as the first President of the American Family Therapy Association. He was the recipient of numerous awards and honors.

Despite any disappointment he may have experienced over seeing dedicated program graduates revert to popular theories upon returning to their home cities (it led him to better selection of applicants); or discouragement over dilution and distortion of his theory by others (it resulted in him attaching his own name to his theory), Murray Bowen never wavered from his desire for a science of human behavior. With this lifelong commitment, he directly improved family relationships among those he treated, and indirectly improved them for the countless families who have benefitted from Bowen Family Systems Theory through those who faithfully embrace it, practice it, and continue to integrate it with the natural sciences.

Murray Bowen died at his home in Chevy Chase, Maryland on October 9, 1990 at the age of seventy-seven. In the last years of his life, Bowen had envisioned the publication of a journal by the Georgetown Family Center. Shortly before his death, the first meeting of the Editorial Board of the journal was held, and the inaugural issue of Family Systems: A Journal of Natural Systems Thinking in Psychiatry and the Sciences was published in the spring of 1994. As of 2014, there is a network of sixteen centers in the United States, Canada, Hong Kong, and Australia actively engaged in research and teaching based in Bowen theory.

Bowen, J. (2013). Foreword. In J. Butler (Ed.), The Origins of Family Psychotherapy, (1-4). New York: Jason Aronson.

Bowen, M. (1982). “Subjectivity, Homo Sapiens, and Science,” in Family Center Report, Vol. 4, No. 2, Georgetown Family Center

Bowen, M. (1978). Family Therapy in Clinical Practice. New York: Jason Aronson.

——– (1988). An odyssey toward science. In M.E. Kerr, M. Bowen, Family Evaluation, (339-386). New York: Norton.

——– (2013). The NIMH family study project. In J. Butler (Ed.), The Origins of Family Psychotherapy. New York: Jason Aronson.