Alumni Services

Ronald Fairbairn (1889 – 1964)

Psychiatrist, psychoanalyst and the father of the object relations theory of psychoanalysis.

Ronald Fairbairn

Born and raised in Edinburgh, and educated at Merchiston Castle School, Fairbairn originally attended the University of Edinburgh to study Divinity and Greek, graduating with an MA in 1911.

Medical degree

The First World War then took him away from home, when he joined the Royal Engineers and served in the Palestinian campaign, and then the Royal Garrison Artillery. On his return – moved by his war experiences – he began a medical degree at Edinburgh, eventually gaining an MD in 1929.

At this time, he had also begun lecturing in psychology at the University, and continued doing so until 1935. Simultaneously, he practised some independent analysis of patients and became a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1931.

Profound influence

Despite the confines of spending his whole education and subsequent career in Edinburgh, Fairbairn’s papers and reports at the time earned him many admirers in the field of psychoanalysis, and in 1939 he was made a full member of of the British Psychoanalytical Society.

His work had a profound influence on the British study of object relations, and Fairbairn became one of the theory-builders for the Middle Group (now called the Independent Group) of psychoanalysts, who were more concerned with the relationships between people than with the drivers within them.

Object relations

Many of Fairbairn’s ideas are now considered innovative for the time. He proposed an alternative view on the purpose of the libido, seeing it as object-seeking (i.e. with the aim of creating relationships with others) in contrast to Freud’s assertion that it is pleasure-seeking.

He also championed the concept of ‘splitting’ in psychology, also known as ‘black or white thinking’. This constitutes the failure in a person's thinking to bring together the dichotomy of both positive and negative qualities of the self and others into a cohesive, realistic whole, and is a common defence mechanism used by many people in seeing their own or others’ actions and motivations as either all good, or all bad.

Key figure

Regarded as a key figure in 20th century psychoanalysis research, Ronald Fairbairn died in 1964 at the age of 75. Married twice, he is buried in Dean Cemetery, Edinburgh, with both of his wives.

Related links

Psychology at the University of Edinburgh