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(p. 47) Letter to the British Medical Journal: Evacuation of Small Children 

(p. 47) Letter to the British Medical Journal: Evacuation of Small Children
(p. 47) Letter to the British Medical Journal: Evacuation of Small Children

Donald W. Winnicott

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date: 14 December 2017

Originally published in British Medical Journal, 16 December 1939, 2(4119), 1202–1203.
John Bowlby (1907–90) was a psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and the director of the Department for Children and Parents at the Tavistock Clinic for two decades.
Emmanuel Miller (1893–1970) was an influential psychiatrist at the Maudsley Hospital, and founder and director of the East London Child Guidance Clinic.

Sir: The evacuation of small children between the ages of two and five introduces major psychological problems. Schemes for evacuation are being thought out, and before they are completed we wish to draw attention to these problems.

There are dangers in the interference with the life of a toddler which have but little counterpart in the case of older children. Evacuation of older children has been sufficiently successful to show, if it were not known before, that many children over five can stand separation from home and even benefit from it. It does not follow from this that the evacuation of smaller children without their mothers can be equally successful or free from danger.

From among much research done on this subject a recent investigation carried out by one of us at the London Child Guidance Clinic may be quoted.i It showed that one important external factor in the causation of persistent delinquency is a small child’s prolonged separation from his mother. Over half of a statistically valid series of cases investigated had suffered periods of (p. 48) separation from their mothers and familiar environment lasting six months or more during their first five years of life. Study of individual case histories confirmed the statistical inference that the separation was the outstanding aetiological factor in these cases. Apart from such a gross abnormality as chronic delinquency, mild behaviour disorders, anxiety, and a tendency to vague physical illness can often be traced to such disturbances of the little child’s environment, and most mothers of small children recognize this by being unwilling to leave their little children for more than very short periods.

It is quite possible for a child of any age to feel sad or upset at having to leave home, but the point that we wish to make is that such an experience in the case of a little child can mean far more than the actual experience of sadness. It can in fact amount to an emotional ‘black-out’, and can easily lead to a severe disturbance of the development of the personality which may persist throughout life. (Orphans and children without homes start off as tragedies, and we are not dealing with the problems of their evacuation in this letter.)

These views are frequently questioned by workers in day nurseries and children’s homes, who speak of the extraordinary way in which small children accustom themselves to a new person and appear quite happy, while those who are a little older often show signs of distress. This may be true, but in our opinion this happiness can easily be deceptive. In spite of it children often fail to recognize their mothers on returning home. When this happens it is found that radical harm has been done and the child’s character seriously warped. The capacity to experience and express sadness marks a stage in the development of a child’s personality and capacity for social relationships.

If these opinions are correct it follows that evacuation of small children without their mothers can lead to very serious and widespread psychological disorder. For instance, it can lead to a big increase in juvenile delinquency in the next decade.

A great deal more can be said about this problem on the basis of known facts. By this letter we only wish to draw the attention of those who are in authority to the existence of the problem.—We are, etc.,

John Bowlby

Emanuel Miller

D. W. Winnicott

London, W.1, Dec. 6.


Editorial Note i The research carried out by Bowlby at the London Child Guidance Clinic at Canonbury Square culminated in the famous paper ‘Forty-Four Juvenile Thieves’ (Bowlby, 1944) (Senn, M. (2007). Interview with John Bowlby. Retrieved from