The Boston University Longitudinal Study:
Prospect and Retrospect After
Louis W. Sander, M.D.
The Boston University Longitudinal Study was begun in 1954 by Dr. Eleanor Pavenstedt for the purpose of illuminating the art of taking histories for child-psychiatry trainees. Illustration and demonstration of those aspects of the child's early relationships and developmental history that must be included in an intake anamnesis were felt to be sorely needed. What are the details of the mother-infant relationship at different ages in a sample of normal families, and how can they be elicited? What variations do they show over time, and how does the interviewer gain access to them? The study was designed around the systematic selection of mothers from the prenatal clinic of a general hospital, so that the effect of differences in maternal character might be traced to their expression in caregiving behavior. The mother-infant pairs were then followed to the point in the development of the personality of these firstborn children when they reached the first grade of school. Simple criteria in the selection of the sample eliminated families with severe psychopathology or serious disturbance in family organization. It turned out that the sample was a highly stable one. Now after twenty-five years, with a gap in contact of almost twenty years, twenty-nine of the original thirty families are all living within approximately fifty miles of the subjects' birthplace. Clearly, the sample has represented a specific cohort in time over a particular two-decade history of the city of Boston. Such a cohort can never be replicated, nor can this two-decade history ever be repeated—another feature of uniqueness in long-term longitudinal study that shapes and constrains the questions we can ask and the generalizability of findings.
As social and economic climates have dramatically changed, intervening and contextual variables have demanded greater attention. As the phenomenon of the "invulnerable child," or the "superphrenics" of which Anthony speaks, has become more widely appreciated, a wider perspective of the richness of possible developmental solutions offered by a given environment has become evident. There is a new challenge to define which elements show continuity, which show change, and which become transformed in the developmental course. Interest in development as a life-span process is stimulating a search for new understanding of developmental potential at the distal end of the life span. One can won