Photograph of Martha Harris

Martha Harris

Martha Harris (1920-1986) was known both for her clinical subtlety and analytic imagination and for her exceptional capacities as a teacher. Her central achievements lay in the development of child psychotherapy in the UK and beyond, and in her elaboration of the potential of infant observation both as a cornerstone of psychoanalytic education and for its illumination of the early growth of mind and the understanding of primary relationships.

Early life

Always known as ‘Mattie’, Harris was the eldest of four children, and part of a very lively family. She spent her early years on a Scottish farm, and a beautiful soft Scots voice and love of the colours of this childhood landscape and of Scottish dancing remained with her all her life. When she was eight, her family moved to Sussex. After a painful mourning of her first home she came to enjoy her school years, flourishing both academically and in sports and in school dramatic productions. She went on to study English literature at the University of London, and her love and wide knowledge of literature remained a creative mainspring all her life. Indeed, although she later acquired a psychology degree, she felt it was her literary training that was most valuable in her later career as a child psychotherapist and psychoanalyst, enriching her access to emotional experience and the unconscious.

Training in child psychotherapy and work at the Tavistock

After some years of work as a teacher, she came to the Tavistock Clinic in 1950 to undertake the training in child psychotherapy recently established by Esther Bick at John Bowlby’s invitation. Her peers included Frances Tustin and Dina Rosenbluth. Bick and Bowlby stood for rather different approaches to psychoanalytic work with children and families, but both quickly saw Harris’ outstanding clinical and organisational capacities. In 1960 she was asked to take responsibility for the training, and from the mid 1960s onwards her purpose was to extend the scope of the training of child psychotherapists in line with the Tavistock’s role in the NHS as a centre for psychoanalytically based therapy and training. This endeavour suited her temperament and talents extremely well.

Her conviction about the importance of Bick’s brilliant invention of a method of naturalistic observation of babies in their own homes soon led her to the idea of helping workers with children in different contexts to observe and record in detail their interactions at work, and hence to the establishment of Work Discussion seminars as a constituent in training both clinicians and the wider professional community working with children.

Her teaching and clinical supervision were profoundly formative for a whole generation of child psychotherapists and others at the Tavistock and led to students from many other countries taking back with them the model of training which she had developed. She often inspired affection, and the admiration of her phenomenal capacity for hard work and devotion to psychoanalytic thinking seemed to give rise to such commitment in others.

Psychoanalytic training

While pouring energy into her work as a child psychotherapist, she had also completed her training as a psychoanalyst at the Institute of Psychoanalysis and she went on to become a training analyst and valued supervisor of analytic candidates. Her analyst was Herbert Rosenfeld and she particularly valued her supervision with Esther Bick and Wilfred Bion, with whom she maintained a close link throughout his life.

After the tragic early death of her husband Roland, she married Donald Meltzer and they shared a remarkable personal and working partnership. Harris enjoyed their extensive travels and teaching abroad. In this, her emphasis on the importance of early mother-infant interaction and her attention to observing detail whatever the context was a crucial resource.

Harris’ legacy has been of particular importance in enabling her colleagues and students to develop the scope of child psychotherapy across the NHS and in many countries across the globe, and the importance she came to attribute to writing for both professionals and the wider public has played a part in the extraordinary wealth of both book and journal publication of the last 30 years.

Margaret Rustin, 2017

Key publications

These were published in her lifetime mostly as papers in the newly established Journal of Child Psychotherapy, as book chapters, or as short books intended for parents and teachers. In recent years Harris’ work as a whole has been edited by Meg Harris Williams and reprinted in the Harris Meltzer Trust series, published by Karnac.

1975, republished 2011. Harris, M. Thinking About Infants and Young Children.

1969, republished 2007. Harris, M. Your Teenager: Thinking About your Child During the Secondary School Years.

1987, republished 2011. Harris, M. and Bick, E. The Tavistock Model: Papers on Child Development and Psychoanalytic Training.

2012  Harris, M. and Meltzer, D. Adolescence: Talks and Papers by Donald Meltzer and Martha Harris.

1976, reprinted 2013. Harris, M. and Meltzer, D. The Educational Role of the Family: A Psychoanalytic Model.

2011  Harris Williams, M. Rhode, M. and Rustin, M. and Williams, G. Enabling and Inspiring: A Tribute to Martha Harris.