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American Imago 61.4 (2004) 457-481

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"Let's Never Ask Him What To Do":

Clare Britton's Transformative Impact
on Donald Winnicott

In his recent biography of Donald Winnicott, F. Robert Rodman (2003) highlights the transformative role played by Clare Britton Winnicott, a social worker who in 1951 became Donald's second wife, in both his personal and professional life. Having had access to over seventy letters from their correspondence, Rodman documents the emergence of their relationship during their collaboration assisting evacuated children in Oxfordshire during World War II and suggests that this romance, and later marriage, had a profound impact on Donald's professional creativity: "During this relationship, which would continue the rest of his life, he became an entirely new kind of thinker and writer about the psychoanalytic understanding of human life" (8). In a 1946 letter, Donald himself wrote to Clare, "my work is really quite a lot associated with you. Your effect on me is to make me keen and productive and this is all the more awful—because when I am cut off from you I feel paralyzed for all action and originality" (C. Winnicott 1978, 252).

Both Brett Kahr (1996) and Rodman have remarked that not only the quantity but also the quality of Donald's written work dramatically improved after he became involved with Clare. Rodman offers several hypotheses about her impact: that Clare was reminiscent of Donald's transitional object, that she "made herself available to be re-created in the image of his desires and needs," and that she "provided him with near-perfect 'mirroring'" (2003, 103). But though some attention has been given to their personal relationship, Clare and Donald's thirty-year professional collaboration has not been adequately acknowledged by the authors (Phillips 1988; Kahr 1996; Rodman 2003) who have studied Donald Winnicott's life [End Page 457] and work. While most scholars are familiar with Clare's role as Donald's literary executor in the years following his death, information about her own distinguished career and intellectual contributions has only recently become accessible (Holman 2001; Kanter 2000; 2004). In this paper, I will briefly review Clare's career before discussing her professional collaboration with her husband and its transformative impact on Winnicott's clinical practice and intellectual contributions.

Clare Britton Winnicott: A Biographical Outline

Born in 1906 in the north of England, Clare Britton grew up as the eldest of four siblings in the home of a community-minded Baptist minister. After some early years working in YWCAs and youth ministries, Clare completed the Social Science Course at the London School of Economics in 1938 before taking her first formal social work position with troubled youth in a depression-ravaged Welsh town. After several years of witnessing extreme poverty firsthand, she returned to the London School of Economics where she completed the Mental Health Course under wartime circumstances in Cambridge in 1941. She then spent the War working in Oxfordshire supervising five hostels or group residences for troubled evacuees who were unable to cope with routine placements in family homes. In this project, she worked alongside Donald Winnicott, who served as its psychiatric consultant on a one-day-per-week basis.

Clare and Donald's creative work with children during the War became known throughout Great Britain, and they emerged as leaders in a postwar movement to transform children's services. They coauthored two articles about the Oxfordshire experience (Winnicott and Britton 1944; 1947), and Clare was the sole author of a third (Britton 1945), the first of over two dozen publications during her career. After offering joint testimony to the Curtis Commission, the precursor of the 1948 Children's Act that established a child welfare system throughout England, Clare was appointed head of a new course in Child Care at the London School of Economics. In this position, which she held from 1947 to 1958, she trained [End Page 458] a cadre of professional social workers in the emerging field of child care. However, because of a...


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