William Ronald Dodds Fairbairn (1889-1964)

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William Ronald Dodds Fairbairn (1889-1964) has in recent years been recognised as one of the major figures in the development of psychoanalysis in the 20th century, particularly with regard to childhood and development. He has attracted considerable attention as one of the first figures in medicine to confront the psychological effect of child abuse and the impact of repressed / recovered memories on development. His model of the importance of relationships in development presents a challenge to the model of Freud. Recent research has situated Fairbairn as part of a distinct Scottish tradition in theories of selfhood which includes leading figures like philosopher John Macmurray (whose papers are also held by Edinburgh University Library) and psychiatrist Ian Suttie. Fairbairn’s interdisciplinary interests in ethical and artistic theory, coupled with a strong actual practice in therapy and analysis, give him a particular relevance in modern medicine.

Fairbairn studied a wide range of subjects at the University of Edinburgh (MA 1911) and served during the First World War, during which he visited Craiglockhart where W.H.R. Rivers was working with shell-shocked soldiers. His experiences apparently determined him to become a psychoanalyst. He then studied medicine, including psychiatry, and wrote a thesis on “The relationship of dissociation and repression considered from the point of view of medical psychology” (MD 1929). He worked as a physician and medical psychologist at Edinburgh hospitals, and lectured at the University on Psychology and Philosophy, before moving into full-time private practice as a psychoanalyst. His breadth of interests allowed him to develop independent, critical and creative approaches to the subject. His collections will reveal the sources of many of these ideas.


Sir Nicholas Hardwick Fairbairn (1933-1995), QC, MP, was Fairbairn's son. He donated Fairbairn's library to the University.


Fairbairn’s main lifetime publication was Psychoanalytic Studies of the Personality (1952), which was reprinted in 1990 with a new introduction by D.E. Scharff and E.F. Birtles.

His uncollected papers were gathered together in From Instinct to Self: Selected Papers of W.R.D. Fairbairn (ed. Scharff & Birtles, 2 vols.,1994).

A biography by John Sutherland was published in as Fairbairn’s Journey into the Interior (1989).

Others on Fairbairn

There have been a number of important recent studies revaluating Fairbairn including Graham Clarke, Personal Relations Theory: Fairbairn, Macmurray, and Suttie (2006). Other work by David Scharff and Graham Clarke is approaching publication.