On This Day … 28 January

People (Deaths)

  • 1971 – Donald Winnicott, English paediatrician and psychoanalyst (b. 1896).

Donald Winnicott

Donald Woods Winnicott FRCP (07 April 1896 to 25 January 1971) was an English paediatrician and psychoanalyst who was especially influential in the field of object relations theory and developmental psychology. He was a leading member of the British Independent Group of the British Psychoanalytical Society, President of the British Psychoanalytical Society twice (1956-1959 and 1965-1968), and a close associate of Marion Milner.

Winnicott is best known for his ideas on the true self and false self, the “good enough” parent, and borrowed from his second wife, Clare Winnicott, arguably his chief professional collaborator, the notion of the transitional object. He wrote several books, including Playing and Reality, and over 200 papers.


Winnicott completed his medical studies in 1920, and in 1923, the same year as his marriage to the artist Alice Buxton Winnicott (born Taylor). She was a potter and they married on 07 July 1923 in St Mary’s Church, Frensham. Alice had “severe psychological difficulties” and Winnicott arranged for her, and his own therapy, to address the difficulties this condition created. He obtained a post as physician at the Paddington Green Children’s Hospital in London, where he was to work as a paediatrician and child psychoanalyst for 40 years. In 1923 he began a ten-year psychoanalysis with James Strachey, and in 1927 he began training as an analytic candidate. Strachey discussed Winnicott’s case with his wife Alix Strachey, apparently reporting that Winnicott’s sex life was affected by his anxieties. Winnicott’s second analysis, beginning in 1936, was with Joan Riviere.

Winnicott rose to prominence as a psychoanalyst just as the followers of Anna Freud were in conflict with those of Melanie Klein for the right to be called Sigmund Freud’s “true intellectual heirs”. Out of the Controversial discussions during World War II, a compromise was reached with three more-or-less amicable groups within the psychoanalytic movement: the “Freudians”, the “Kleinians”, and the “Middle Group” of the British Psychoanalytical Society (the latter being called the “Independent Group”), to which Winnicott belonged, along with Ronald Fairbairn, Michael Balint, Masud Khan, John Bowlby, Marion Milner, and Margaret Little.

During the Second World War, Winnicott served as consultant paediatrician to the children’s evacuation programme. During the war, he met and worked with Clare Britton, a psychiatric social worker who became his colleague in treating children displaced from their homes by wartime evacuation. Winnicott was lecturing after the war and Janet Quigley and Isa Benzie of the BBC asked him to give over sixty talks on the radio between 1943 and 1966. His first series of talks in 1943 was titled “Happy Children.” As a result of the success of these talks, Quigley offered him total control over the content of his talks but this soon became more consultative as Quigley advised him on the correct pitch.

After the war, he also saw patients in his private practice. Among contemporaries influenced by Winnicott was R.D. Laing, who wrote to Winnicott in 1958 acknowledging his help.

Winnicott divorced his first wife in 1949 and married Clare Britton (1907-1984) in 1951. A keen observer of children as a social worker and a psychoanalyst in her own right, she had an important influence on the development of his theories and likely acted as midwife to his prolific publications after they met.

Except for one book published in 1931 (Clinical Notes on Disorders of Childhood), all of Winnicott’s books were published after 1944, including The Ordinary Devoted Mother and Her Baby (1949), The Child and the Family (1957), Playing and Reality (1971), and Holding and Interpretation: Fragment of an Analysis (1986).

Winnicott died on 25 January 1971, following the last of a series of heart attacks and was cremated in London. Clare Winnicott oversaw the posthumous publication of several of his works.

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