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Winnicott, Donald Woodsfree

  • Clifford Yorke

Donald Woods Winnicott (1896–1971)

by unknown photographer, 1970

© reserved; Winnicott Trust; photograph National Portrait Gallery, London

Winnicott, Donald Woods (1896–1971), paediatrician and psychoanalyst, was born on 7 April 1896 at 17 Gordon Terrace, Plymouth, the youngest of three children and only son of Sir (John) Frederick Winnicott (1855–1948), merchant, twice mayor of Plymouth and later freeman of the city, and his wife, Elizabeth Martha (d. 1925), daughter of William Woods. Winnicott's sisters, Kathleen and Violet, were five and six years older. The children grew up in an emotionally and financially secure family. Relationships with Richard Winnicott, Frederick's elder brother, and his wife, three sons, and two daughters, all living across the road, were close, and contributed to the liveliness and vivacity of family life. Sir Frederick had a simple but deep Wesleyan religious faith.

Winnicott was educated at the Leys School and Jesus College, Cambridge, beginning his pre-medical training in biology, physiology, and anatomy in 1914, and graduating BA with third-class honours before starting his medical studies. Some Cambridge colleges had been turned into military hospitals and in Winnicott's first year as a medical student he helped in the work there. Despite being exempt from wartime service he interrupted his studies in 1917 and joined the Royal Navy, to serve on a destroyer as a surgeon-probationer. An experienced medical orderly helped to compensate for Winnicott's limited training. When the ship was in action there were casualties, but Winnicott had sufficient free time to tackle the novels of Henry James.

On leaving the navy Winnicott continued his medical studies at London's St Bartholomew's Hospital, joining in a social life that included singing, playing the piano, dancing, swimming, rugby football, and listening to opera at the back of the ‘Gods’. He worked hard, especially at children's medicine (not yet called paediatrics). Winnicott discovered Freud and decided to make psychoanalysis part of his life's work. He qualified MRCS LRCP in 1920, served for a year as casualty officer at Bart's, was admitted in due course MRCP, and in 1923 was appointed consultant at the Queen's Hospital for Children, where the London county council's rheumatic and heart clinic was based and of which he took charge for the next ten years. Winnicott first married, on 7 July 1923, Alice Buxton (1891–1968), potter and artist, daughter of John William Taylor, professor of gynaecology at the University of Birmingham. After studying at Newnham College, Cambridge, and war work, Alice trained at several London art schools. In the mid-1930s she acquired the Upchurch pottery, Kent, and produced the Claverdon range of tableware; as a painter she exhibited at the Royal Academy while her bronze bust of T. E. Lawrence is in the collection of the National Library of Wales. The couple were divorced in 1949 and Donald Winnicott then married, on 28 December 1951, (Elsie) Clare Nimmo [see Winnicott, (Elsie) Clare Nimmo (1906-1984)], daughter of James Nimmo Britton, a Baptist minister. She later became director of child care studies at the Home Office. There were no children of either marriage.

The year 1923 was an eventful one for Winnicott, as he was also appointed consultant at Paddington Green Children's Hospital and, furthermore, began his ten-year analysis training with James Strachey. In 1936 his work was supervised by Melanie Klein, whose influence in the British Psychoanalytical Society was substantial, and he underwent some further training from her close supporter, Joan Riviere. Winnicott was attracted to many of Klein's ideas but, characteristically, needed to think them through for himself in the light of his own clinical experience. In the process, ideas he valued, whether Klein's or not, often underwent alteration. Winnicott remained, as always, an independent thinker. He qualified as a psychoanalyst in 1934, and became a training analyst in 1940. However, in the early 1930s it became evident that child psychoanalysis in Vienna and London, under the leadership of Anna Freud and Melanie Klein respectively, was developing along different lines, and exchange visits failed to resolve disagreements. When the Nazis threatened to invade Austria, many psychoanalysts left for the United States and Great Britain. Klein's eminent position in London was threatened, a situation intensified after the Anschluss, when Anna Freud came to Britain with her father. A few analysts remained independent of either group, but tension and deep differences within the society led to the 'controversial discussions' beginning in 1941 and ending without agreement in 1945.

Winnicott was regarded as a Kleinian at the start of the debate, but as time went on Klein was increasingly dissatisfied with his strong independence of mind, which became ever clearer. When, on reorganization of the institution, a split in the society was avoided, and contending (formalized) groups found a way of working together, Winnicott became unequivocally a member of the 'middle' or independent (unaligned) group—a body diverse in its members' opinions. For all that, his influence within the society was wide and his freedom of action and association was demonstrated years later in an unforgettable dialogue with Anna Freud on a child patient, witnessed by an enthralled audience at her clinic.

Winnicott's paediatric practice was strongly influenced by psychoanalytic thinking. A child, whether physically ill or not, was a person, motivated by thoughts, feelings, and fantasies, many of which were outside conscious awareness. Children understood Winnicott uncommonly well, and he engaged and played with them by using the child in himself, his open outlook, and his sense of fun, to turn a diagnostic interview into a mutually enriching experience. It has been said with only slight exaggeration that Winnicott didn't play with children: they played with him.

Winnicott's complex theory of human development, often couched in a language of his own, defies brief summary, but one or two principal points may be made. Among these is the concept of 'primary maternal preoccupation' that, developing gradually, lasts for some weeks before and some weeks after a child's birth. For the mother, the baby is part of her and, in relation to it, she is in a state of heightened sensitivity. Emerging from this condition, and often completely forgetting it, she becomes an ordinary devoted mother whose mothering, in spite of her anxieties, is good enough: she is sufficiently in tune with the baby's needs to be able to meet them. To begin with, said Winnicott, 'there is no such thing as a baby', only a mother–baby unit, owing to the baby's total physical helplessness. The mother provides a 'facilitating environment', fostered through 'holding' (physically and metaphorically), that will see her child through the succeeding stages: through his growing awareness of the mother's part in meeting his needs to a sense of increasing separateness and independence. For all the importance Winnicott attached to the mother's facilitation, his views were rooted in observation and devoid of sentimentality and idealization of the mother's role. The father supports the mother in her creation of this environment, and also, as time goes by, has his own special functions in relation to the child.

One of Winnicott's most enduring concepts is that of the 'transitional object'. His starting point was the clinical and everyday observation that a bit of cloth, a pillow, a rag doll, or similar object could become an indispensable possession for the small child. This inanimate companion provides an intermediate stage, by way of the thumb as surrogate nipple, between the mother's breast and the outside world. It is a move away from the mother, while still providing the comfort and pleasure that, hitherto, only her body could give. It can be stroked, cuddled, bitten, torn, and dirtied without fear of complaint or rejoinder. To the infant it not only has a reality but a vitality of its own. The ‘ordinary devoted mother’ knows well enough that the transitional object must not be changed or given up, except by the infant. In spite of further psychological growth, the object persists until, gradually abandoned, it is neither forgotten nor mourned. Its functions are increasingly taken over by what Winnicott saw as the whole intermediate territory lying between inner psychic reality and the external world.

It is in this intermediate area, too, that play begins and, to this extent, is an extension of transitional phenomena. The child becomes preoccupied with his play; he manipulates phenomena and objects in the service of imaginative fantasy and creativity that is essentially satisfying. Playing involves the capacity to be alone in the presence of others. The child moves on to shared playing, and then to experience of, and interchange with, the culture around him. What happens if the mothering is not devoted and the environment not facilitating? If, say, independence is not encouraged and the mother impinges on the child's development by insisting that he follow her wishes and ignores his own, he may develop a false self, compliantly be what he thinks others want him to be, and have no true sense of personal identity. Other possible dysfunctions are many.

Winnicott was twice president of the British Psychoanalytical Society, president of the paediatric section of the Royal Society of Medicine, and, inter alia, president of the Association for Child Psychology and Psychiatry. He was awarded the James Spence medal of the British Paediatric Association in 1968. He was sparely built, had an aquiline nose, a strong chin, blue eyes, and large, attentive ears. He could be somewhat quirky, often endearingly so. He could be fun, but offended a few when he spoke his mind. Winnicott died of heart failure at his home, 87 Chester Square, London, on 25 January 1971. He was cremated, following a secular funeral, at Golders Green crematorium, on 29 January 1971.

Winnicott contributed in many other fields, adolescence and delinquency among them, and his influence both within and outside psychoanalysis, in Britain and overseas, has been considerable. Many of those who work with children in the caring professions have found his ideas on child development of great value, and his striking apothegm quoted above—'there is no such thing as a baby'—is still heard in many contexts. He was a pioneer of the ‘therapeutic interview’ with children and devised a method of engaging his young patient by drawing what he called a squiggle. This was an irregular line on a sheet of paper which the child was invited to turn into any kind of drawing he wished. This simple device was remarkably effective and widely adopted, and after Winnicott's death his wife, Clare, formed a highly successful group to commemorate and perpetuate his work, called the Squiggle Foundation. Open to a wide body of professionals, it is still very active. The concepts of the false self and the transitional object remain in wide use, and Anna Freud always expected the staff of her children's clinic to know, in a child under assessment, in what form a transitional object, if present, existed. The Winnicott Trust was set up posthumously to promote Winnicott's work by furthering the publication of those many papers that had not hitherto seen the light of day and by supporting the Winnicott research unit at Cambridge University, later moved to the University of Reading.


  • C. Winnicott, ‘D. W. W.: a reflection’, Between reality and fantasy, ed. S. A. Grolnick and L. Baskin (1978)
  • M. Davis and D. Wallbridge, Boundary and space: an introduction to work of D. W. Winnicott (1981)
  • private information (2004) [Clare Winnicott; M. Davis; J. Johns, British Psychoanalytical Society]
  • b. cert.
  • m. certs.
  • d. cert.
  • J. Greer, ‘Learning from linked lives: narrativising the individual and group biographies of the guests at the 25th Jubilee dinner of the British Psychoanalytical Society at The Savoy, London, on 8th March 1939’, PhD diss., University of Southampton, 2014
  • private information (2015) [J. Greer, on Alice Winnicott]


  • Wellcome L., case files relating to rheumatology of children


  • photograph, 1970, Mark Paterson and Associates, London [see illus.]

Wealth at Death

£40,589: probate, 23 April 1971, CGPLA Eng. & Wales

, 63 vols. (1885–1900), suppl., 3 vols. (1901); repr. in 22 vols. (1908–9); 10 further suppls. (1912–96); (1993)