Monday, March 7, 2011

The Murray Bowen Archives Project of Leaders for Tomorrow

This article first appeared in the Winter 2011 issue of Family Systems Forum, Vol, 12, No. 4. The Forum  is a publication of the Center for the Study of Natural Systems and the Family, P.O. Box 701187, Houston, TX 77270-1187; Subsequent to publication, the article was revised to reflect updated information about LFT’s first capital campaign in support of The Murrary Bowen Archives Project of Leaders for Tomorrow.

The article describes the efforts of the public charity, Leaders for Tomorrow, to find the resources to assist the work of the National Library of Medicine to open for research, education and the interested, one of the collections housed in its History of Medicine Division, namely the multi-media collection of materials created during the lifetime of the psychiatrist/natural scientist, Murray Bowen, MD (1913-1990), about his life and his life's work in developing and applying his new natural systems theory of human emotional functioning. The theory has broad and as yet untapped potential for addressing a myriad of questions about human societies and functioning. Work to develop a beginning theory society as an emotional system is what this blog is all about.

Leaders for Tomorrow hopes that, through its efforts, the manuscript collection of the Murray Bowen Archives can be opened during the 2013, the centennial year of Dr. Bowen's birth.
The Murray Bowen Archives Project of Leaders for Tomorrow
Joanne Bowen, Ph.D. & Patricia A. Comella, J.D.


The Murray Bowen Archives is a collection of documents and audio-visual materials housed at the National Library of Medicine (NLM) in Bethesda, Maryland. NLM, the largest medical library in the world, is located at the National Institutes of Health, where Dr. Bowen carried out his pioneering research in 1954-59. Created during Bowen’s lifetime, Archive materials document the development and application of his new natural systems theory of human emotional functioning.

Before he died in 1990, Bowen gave his theory to the world and entered into discussions with NLM to secure it as a permanent home for the Archives. As such, NLM will provide to researchers, educators and ultimately the interested public the opportunity to see for themselves the development of a theory of the human that, in his words, “aspired toward science.”

Deeds of gift governing transfers of archival materials owned by the Bowen Family Trust and the Georgetown Family Center/Bowen Center for the Study of Family were executed with NLM in late 2002 and early 2007, respectively. While NLM receives some federal resources for work on the Archives, realizing the Archives’ potential will require significant resources from private sources. In November 2008, a tax-exempt, 501(c) (3) public charity, Leaders for Tomorrow (LFT), reorganized to take on as its sole task The Murray Bowen Archives Project (TMBAP). In addition to securing and providing those resources, LFT seeks to support scholarship using the Archives and dissemination of that scholarship, as well as assisting other institutions with holdings that might one day be added to the Archives. Joanne Bowen serves as chair of the LFT Board and as president and executive director. Patricia Comella serves as vice president and board member.

Bowen Family Systems Theory: A Unique New Theory of the Human

Murray Bowen, M.D. (b. 1913) directed his life energy toward developing a science of the human. In his Epilogue to Dr. Michael E. Kerr’s 1988 book, Family Evaluation, Bowen provided an elegant overview of his quest for a natural systems theory of the human. In letters to colleagues Bowen described how his “odyssey toward science” began with his early life experiences growing up and working on a small farm in rural Tennessee. (Bowen, unpublished letter, August 14, 1979; Bowen, unpublished letter, February 16, 1982)

Out of his work came a unique new theory of the human. In an unpublished paper, dated “After Christmas 1988,” he described the theory as one:

that aspires toward science, is limited to impersonal knowledge about the universe, nature, science, and PROVEN facts, rather than personal experience, feelings, and interpretation of other’s facts. . . . The original theory included a few facts from psychoanalytic theory; plus a natural systems theory that was created to integrate the variables with evolution; plus the reproductive family to involve multiple beings. It was simple deductive reasoning. Anyone could have done it from that theoretical background. The new theory produced a broad spectrum of clinical findings, never previously seen or recorded. The author simply recorded the findings as they were seen through that theoretical orientation. (Emphasis in original)

At that time, when Bowen knew that his life was drawing to a close, he gave the theory to the world as his “GIFT” at Christmas 1988, a gift that would be “forever.” (ibid., emphasis in original.) Less than two years later he died.

Before his death, Bowen and NLM reached an informal agreement that the Library would serve as the repository for this archives. The process of gifting archival materials began in 1984, when NLM took possession of audio-visual tapes of interviews Bowen had conducted with a number of clinical families. Each transfer of material gave full possession and rights to NLM.

Together with the Georgetown Family Center/Bowen Center for the Study of the Family (GFC/BCSF), which Bowen founded in 1974, the Bowen Family Trust completed formal arrangements posthumously. At his death, title to Murray Bowen’s personal archives passed to the Bowen Family Trust. Some years later, the Trust deeded the audio-visual collection to GFC/BCSF, where it resided, to facilitate the Center’s efforts to find resources to stop deterioration of that collection. Trust representatives also worked closely with NLM and the Center to formalize the necessary deeds of gift to govern transfers of gifted material from the personal archives to NLM and convey full possession and rights to NLM. A significant portion of Murray Bowen’s personal archives now resides at NLM.

The Murray Bowen Archives—An Astonishing History

Murray Bowen used multiple media to document his ideas over nearly 50 years. Family and professional letters, dating from the 1940s, when he served in the Army in England and France, chronicle the growth of his theory. From the 1950s until his death, he also recorded meetings, conversations, and educational events on reel-to-reel and audiocassette tape recorders. By the 1960s he was recording clinical sessions and talks on videotape. From the 1980s, when his health declined, he increasingly relied on videos to record his thoughts, as he worked to pull his theory together before he died.

After Bowen’s death, the inventory of his personal archives, located at the Bowen family home and the GFC/BCSF, revealed an astonishing array of records about the development and implementation of his theory. The manuscript collection in the physical possession of the Bowen family has been transferred, and NLM has begun processing it. Transfers of archival A/V materials from the GFC/BCSF have begun. As NLM receives them, the Library takes immediate steps to stop deterioration.

Collections in the Personal Archives

Murray Bowen wrote tirelessly, corresponding with many family members and professionals about meetings, new ideas and observations of current events. Taken as a whole, they chronicle the growth of his concepts. The manuscript collection also includes early drafts of published papers, as well as professional papers that were not published. Diagrams found in many of the records reveal a master who observed human life much like a biologist in the field. He recorded his observations using pioneering adaptations of ethnographic and genealogical tools. These included the family diagram, to lay out multigenerational family history data, and action diagrams, to document moment-to-moment functioning in the relationship systems in which the theory was being developed and applied. Researchers have found these documents useful in revealing his thought process.

The inventoried manuscript collection, alone, includes over fifty linear feet of professional and personal correspondence, notes, manuscript drafts, clinical records, family histories, photographs and other documents. NLM considers the depth and breadth of the collection transferred thus far to be unique among its archival collections. The Library has received inquiries from scholars of many disciplines from around the world about access to the manuscript collection.

The inventoried AV collection provides invaluable (and sometimes the only) records of meetings, clinical sessions, conversations, lectures and educational events, when development, clarification and extension of Bowen theory took place.

Other Collections Not Included in the Personal Archives

Not covered in the inventory are records created at the many institutions where Dr. Bowen presented and discussed his ideas. As these records reveal, each meeting, seminar or conference provided Dr. Bowen with an opportunity for dynamic clarification and elaboration of his ideas about human behavior and functioning. He did not merely present. He entered into a dynamic dialogue with his audience, a step, however miniscule, that took him closer to a science of the human. One day some of those collections, in whole or in part, are expected to be part of the Murray Bowen Archives of NLM.

Status of Collections in the Murray Bowen Archives

The Murray Bowen Archives is not open presently for research and education, nor is it publicly accessible. The Archives reside in the “Non-Book Collection” unit of NLM’s History of Medicine Division. The head of that unit has identified opening of the manuscript collection as its first priority for the Archives. This owes both to the collection’s richness and to the speed with which it can be readied for access. Opening the AV collection, which is still in the process of transfer to NLM, will come later. Before NLM can make that collection available, it faces the daunting task of preserving and processing the recordings, which were made with various technologies. NLM must then index the collections and create an electronically searchable system. This will require far greater resources than preparing the manuscript collection.

In summer 2008, an informal association of volunteers, with Joanne Bowen as chair, formed a committee to determine how to find private resources to supplement NLM’s federal funding. Out of the committee’s efforts to identify institutional options for realizing Dr. Bowen’s hope came the idea for The Murray Bowen Archives Project and the general outlines of its mission.

Shortly thereafter, Andrea Schara, founder and president of Leaders for Tomorrow, a Virginia corporation, offered to have LFT provide a home for the project. After considering the time and expense to form a new organization and gain tax-exempt status, the committee accepted Ms. Schara’s offer.

The LFT Board of Directors reorganized the corporation to position it to obtain and administer the significant resources needed to carry out its new vision and mission. It also applied to the Internal Revenue Service for a permanent determination of LFT’s status as a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt, public charity, which the IRS issued in August 2009. Thus, donations to LFT in support of this work are fully tax deductible.

Vision and Mission of TMBAP of LFT

The vision of TMBAP of LFT is to give Bowen theory to the world. Its mission is to contribute to making the Murray Bowen Archives of NLM accessible by assisting NLM to reach its goal. To realize this mission, LFT has established the following goals for TMBAP:

 Promote, support and contribute to the preservation and processing of material in the collections comprising the Murray Bowen Archives;

 Aid development of an Internet-based search and access capability, in a manner consistent with NLM standards and requirements for its non-book collections in the Library’s History of Medicine Division;

 Facilitate additions to the Archives;

 Foster scholarship using the Archives;

 Foster dissemination of that scholarship.

To carry out the mission of TMBAP of LFT through 2013, the centennial year of Dr. Bowen’s birth, LFT will launch a major fundraising effort in early 2011. This First One Hundred Capital Campaign aims to raise a total of $300,000 or $100,000 each year from 2011 through 2013, including $50,000 in the first quarter of 2011 to procure needed archival expertise to allow NLM to accelerate completion of processing the manuscript collection. Persons desiring further information about the Campaign may contact Dr. Ann Bunting, co-chair with Dr. Walter Smith of LFT’s Fundraising Strategy Committee, at

2013: A Time to Celebrate Giving Bowen Theory to the World

LFT seeks to participate in the Bowen centennial by celebrating the GIFT of Bowen theory to the world by:

 Contributing the resources that NLM needs to be able to open the manuscript collection of the Murray Bowen Archives by or during 2013;

 Organizing events to celebrate the opening of the Murray Bowen Archives, including (1) holding a major symposium on the NIH campus to introduce the potential for materials in the Murray Bowen Archives to contribute to progress toward a science of the human; (2) recognizing scholarship that has utilized the Archives for research and education; (3) fostering dissemination of such scholarship; (4) honoring volunteers and donors who have contributed their talents, energy, creativity, time and resources toward opening the collection; and (5) (it is hoped) announcing plans for future acquisitions of additions to the Murray Bowen Archives.

LFT has discussed with NLM the services it needs and estimated costs to process and open the manuscript collection in time for the 2013 centennial year. NLM has also recommended to LFT firms in the private sector that can supply such services.

LFT also has had preliminary discussions with NLM about a symposium to celebrate the extraordinary quality and range of the Murray Bowen Archives. NLM and LFT would co-sponsor the symposium, which the National Institutes of Health would host on its campus. Other centers with missions related to Bowen theory would have the opportunity to join in co-sponsorship. The symposium would officially open the Archives, and would include presentations by NLM representatives about their importance to the history of medicine.

LFT volunteers also have been active in developing protocols to process the paper collection, cataloging and scanning photographs, family histories and correspondence, interviewing professionals who knew Murray Bowen, and identifying collections held in other institutions.


Giving Bowen theory to the world has attracted to LFT a corps of motivated, significant and very knowledgeable individuals who are contributing their time, energy, creativity, talents and resources to realize the Project’s vision and mission. In recognition that these contributions are crucial to the Project’s ultimate success and impact, LFT Board member Monika Baege has agreed to coordinate LFT’s volunteer program. Persons interested in becoming an LFT volunteer may contact Dr. Baege at

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