The Murray Bowen Archives Project — A History and a Look at the Future

Catherine Rakow (Board Member) works at the National Library of Medicine to cull out confidential files from the collection, allowing the collection to be opened to researchers. Photograph by Andrea Schara.
The National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland.

Dr. Bowen gave his theory as a gift to the world.

The history of The Murray Bowen Archives Project is the story of making that gift a reality. Shortly before Dr. Bowen’s death in 1990, it was agreed that the National Library of Medicine would serve as the repository for all of his work. The NLM already had a collection of early video recordings of interviews with clinical families in its History of Medicine Division.

Dr. Bowen gave his daughter, Joanne Bowen, responsibility for seeing that his archives became a reality. After his death, Dr. Bowen’s family transported newly discovered audio and video recordings from his home office to the Georgetown Family Center (now The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family) to join a larger collection used by the faculty.

A complex and daunting task

Staff members and volunteers assessed and catalogued 774 tapes that had been recorded over the years. The Bowen (family) Trust gifted their father’s AV collection to the Bowen Center, but several years later, understanding the need to protect and preserve the collection, the Bowen Center gave the majority of the tapes to NLM where they were put in protective “cold storage” until they could be restored and preserved.

The extensive and complex reality of Dr. Bowen’s archives revealed itself during the 1990s. Other projects in that decade included the curation of Dr. Bowen’s written records from his research project at the National Institutes of Mental Health (1954-59), as well as the beginning of Catherine Rakow's 15-year project of completing a line-item inventory of the NIMH records. This review allowed the creation of a catalog that will serve as a resource to researchers in the future.

Collections take shape and start to open

In 2002 the collection was formally deeded to NLM by the L. Murray Bowen Family Credit Trust. During this decade, the Professional Collection (1959-90) was transferred to NLM. In 2014, after the segregation of sensitive personal and professional documents, which are sealed until 2052, the Professional Collection officially was opened—but only to researchers.

Once the Williamsburg Collection has been moved to NLM and the entire collection has undergone final processing, it will be possible for the general public to access the materials. Part of the work of The Murray Bowen Archives Project is to support NLM in making this a reality.

A treasure trove discovered

Shortly before the death of LeRoy Bowen, Dr. Bowen's widow, in 2011, a discovery was made that reoriented and significantly expanded the scope of The Murray Bowen Archives. When the Bowen children and their spouses were clearing out the family home, in the attic they discovered boxes and boxes of papers tucked into the eaves. These boxes contained Dr. Bowen's papers from the 1930's to the 1950's, and included everything from college and medical school notes taken during classes at the University of Tennessee, to World War II letters and notes, class notes, clinical notes, and correspondence from his time at the Menninger Foundation.

This "treasure trove" and the remaining contents of Dr. Bowen's home office were moved to Williamsburg, Virginia, and are now known as the Williamsburg Collection.

Volunteers form work-ins to process documents

More than 20 volunteers were involved in setting up and participating in the project "work-ins" to process the Williamsburg Collection.

The storage locker in which the Williamsburg Collection currently is stored, Williamsburg, VA. Photograph by Pat Comella. Used with permission.

A collection of photographs, housed at The Bowen Center for the Study of the Family and destined for NLM, also received attention during this time. Under the direction of Priscilla Friesen and Emlyn Ott, volunteers scanned and produced digital copies of photographs, and did initial cataloguing of them. This massive project was moved to Williamsburg in 2014. Within the next few years, the photographs and the Williamsburg Collection will be sorted, organized, and prepared for their move to NLM.

New technology offers new possibilities

The Murray Bowen Archives Project is dedicated to opening the Murray Bowen Archives to the world. Seismic changes in information technology have opened up new vistas since The Project started and much more is possible in making the archives available.

This website is an example of using new technology to introduce Bowen theory through the archived writings and recordings. It includes excerpts of letters and papers in the Williamsburg Collection, depicts periods of his life and highlight topics in the archive. The website will be a work in progress for the next decade, or longer. (Thanks so much to the Website Team: Jean Harrison, Barbara LeBlanc, Greg Brown, Joe Brown, Joanne Bowen, and Patricia Comella.) Joanne Bowen contributed to website content, and she along with her siblings Susan Manne, Kathleen Noer, and Charles Bowen supported and assisted in the selection of letters, photographs, and objects.

On this new website you also will find Oral History Interviews, products of a project directed by Andrea Schara over the past years. These are interviews of people who knew and worked with Dr. Bowen, and who have committed their time and energy to continuing their own research based on Bowen theory. They have been transcribed, and both audio and printed versions will be available. Each month or so, a new interview will be posted.

Calendar found in Dr. Bowen’s medical bag.

The website also is the home of one of the books written using archival materials at NLM. The volume, Commitment to Principles: The Letters of Dr. Murray Bowen, written by Clarence Boyd, is being published serially on the website.

Finally, the website is the first place where it is possible to view a video recording of Dr. Murray Bowen. Keep checking back to view our expanding library of video and audio recordings of Dr. Bowen.

The history of The Murray Bowen Archives Project is rich, and is leading us quickly into the future. Stay tuned and in touch!

Note: Portions of this content appeared in Family Systems Forum, a publication of the Center for the Study of Natural Systems and the Family, Spring 2016.