Dr. Murray Bowen (1913-1990) was an original thinker whose theory, Bowen theory, offers a new way to understand the behavior of the human family in the natural world as the product of millions of years of evolution. His observations of human adaptive patterns allow an integration of systems at many levels, such the cell, behavioral interactions, and societal emotional process.
Beginning with his research and observations of family interaction at the Menninger Foundation (1946-1954) and the NIMH (1954-1959), Dr. Bowen developed a new theory of human functioning in which the family was conceptualized as an emotional unit. As clinical professor of psychiatry at Georgetown University School of Medicine (1959-1990), Dr. Bowen taught psychiatric residents and medical students. He began a Multiple Family Research Project at the Medical College of Virginia, in which he conducted a series of videotaped clinical interviews with families to demonstrate the application of his theory in a clinical setting. These sessions were observed by a professional audience and then discussed with the families present. He was also conducting a similar project at Georgetown that was audiotaped.
A group of graduating residents who participated began the Symposium on Family Theory and Family Psychotherapy in 1965. A special feature of the Symposium was a presentation by a Distinguished Guest Lecturer. In the early years, the invited guest lecturer was a pioneer in the field of family therapy. Guided by the belief that understanding the family must be based on the human’s position in the natural world, Bowen invited scientists from a wide range of scientific disciplines to present. In the fifty years of the Symposium, scientists such as Paul MacLean, Jack Calhoun, Stephen Jay Gould, E.O. Wilson, and Stephen Suomi have participated, permitting an exchange with systems ideas and the further development of Bowen theory.
When a growing number of mental health professionals showed interest in learning more about his ideas, he began a postgraduate training program in 1969, taught by the faculty he had trained. When Dr. Bowen was awarded a grant from NIMH for fellowships in family psychiatry, Dr. Bowen founded the Georgetown University Family Center in 1975 and moved off campus to 4380 MacArthur Boulevard where he established a Family Clinic and expanded training to include another postgraduate program for mental health professionals who lived at a distance from Washington that met for three days, four times a year.
Bowen was one of many pioneers interested in the family as an alternative framework to the predominant individual thinking in the field of psychiatry. In 1978, the Family Center sponsored a special Symposium, The Human Family, where thirty pioneers came to Washington to talk about the development of the field of family therapy and recognize Dr. Bowen’s life work.
Dr. Bowen wrote extensively about the development of his ideas. Family Therapy in Clinical Practice*, a compilation of his papers, was published in 1978, permitting wider exposure and more in depth understanding of his ideas. In 1988, Family Evaluation* by Dr. Michael Kerr, with an Epilogue by Bowen, was published and segments were featured in The Atlantic Monthly. In 1994, the first issue of Family Systems, a peer reviewed journal of articles related to Bowen theory and the natural sciences, was published and still continues today.
Dr. Bowen added new faculty and expanded training opportunities. Interest in the training programs by clergy, organizational and financial professionals, and other disciplines grew. As out of town trainees returned home, they established a network of centers across the country that sponsored conferences and their own educational programs. Interns and Clinical Fellows in family therapy and biofeedback staffed the sliding fee scale Clinic. Research seminars were added for those who had participated for several years in the postgraduate programs. The Annual Spring Conference was begun which engaged several scientists and Bowen thinkers around a central theme, such as Cutoff, Triangles, the Brain and the Family, Stress and Relationships. The Theory Meeting which Dr. Bowen began in 1963 at Georgetown continues to provide an opportunity for individuals to present their work and research. The Clinical Conferences, once held at the Medical College of Virginia, were moved to Washington DC in 1978 and became a formal monthly teaching conference by Dr. Bowen and later by other faculty.
In 1990, The Georgetown Family Center left Georgetown University and became incorporated as a nonprofit organization in the District of Columbia, receiving a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt status. When Dr. Bowen died that year, Dr. Kerr became the new Director, with Dr. Dan Papero and Ruth Sagar serving on the Board of Directors. A fundraising effort permitted the Center to purchase a condominium suite at 4400 MacArthur Boulevard, giving the Family Center a permanent address for the first time.
Dr. Kerr added new faculty who took on responsibilities such as hosting the clinical conferences, supervising, training, organizing conferences, and speaking at network centers. A videotaped show discussing Bowen theory, Family Matters, was begun at the University of the District of Columbia. An Advisory Board was appointed and assisted the Center in launching its website and recommending the name change to the Bowen Center for the Study of the Family to recognize Dr. Bowen as it founder.
After Dr. Kerr stepped down as Director, the Board appointed Dr. Anne McKnight the new Director in January 2011. Dr. Kerr became Director Emeritus in recognition of his years of leadership at the Center.
Dr. McKnight has continued in the footsteps of her predecessors to foster an atmosphere of scientific inquiry to extend and develop Bowen theory through a rigorous interchange with science and research. Through the efforts of the staff and faculty, the programs of the Center are being sustained and expanded as new efforts are initiated to fulfill its mission. These include the renovation of the classroom, upgrading the technology of the Center, launching a new website, and offering web-based programming. The Bowen Center continues to promote, develop, and disseminate the ideas of Bowen theory, connecting to a world in which scientific research and technological advances allow new opportunities for the theory to become more widely known and relevant in the world.