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Benjamin Spock

Pediatrician most noted for his authorship of Baby and Child Care, which significantly changed predominant attitudes toward the raising of infants and children.

Benjamin McLane Spock was born on May 2, 1903, in New Haven, Connecticut, the oldest child in a large, strict New England family. His family was so strict that in his 82nd year he would still be saying "I love to dance in order to liberate myself from my puritanical upbringing." Educated at private preparatory schools, he attended Yale from 1921 to 1925, majoring in English literature. He was a member of the racing crew that represented the United States in the 1924 Olympic Games at Paris, finishing 300 feet ahead of its nearest rival. He began medical school at Yale in 1925, and transferred to Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1927. He had, by this time, married Jane Davenport Cheney, whom he had met after a Yale-Harvard boat race.

Spock had decided well before starting his medical studies that he would "work with children, who have their whole lives ahead of them" and so, upon taking his M.D. degree in 1929 and serving his general internship at the prestigious Presbyterian Hospital, he specialized in pediatrics at a small hospital crowded with children in New York's Hell's Kitchen area. Believing that pediatricians at that time were focusing too much on the physical side of child development, he took up a residency in psychiatry as well.

Between 1933 and 1944, Spock practiced pediatric medicine, while at the same time teaching pediatrics at Cornell Medical College and consulting in pediatric psychiatry for the New York City Health Department. On a summer vacation in 1943, he began to write his most famous book, Baby and Child Care, and he continued to work on it from 1944 to 1946 while serving as a medical officer in the Navy.

The book sharply broke with the authoritarian tone and rigorous instructions found in earlier generations of baby-care books, most of which said to feed infants on a strict schedule and not to pick them up when they cried. Spock, who spent ten years trying to reconcile his psychoanalytic training with what mothers were telling him about their children, told his readers "You know more than you think you do…. Don't be afraid to trust your own common sense…. Take it easy, trust your own instincts, and follow the directions that your doctor gives you." The response was overwhelming. Baby and Child Care rapidly became America's all-time best-seller except for Shakespeare and the Bible; by 1976, it had also eclipsed Shakespeare.

After his discharge from the Navy, Spock became associated with the famous Mayo Clinic (1947-1951) and then became a professor of child development at the University of Pittsburgh (1951-1955) and at Case Western Reserve (1955-1967). His political activism began during this period, growing logically out of his concern for children. A healthy environment for growing children, he believed, included a radiation-free atmosphere to breathe and so, in 1962, he became co-chairman of SANE, an organization dedicated to stopping nuclear bomb tests in the Earth's atmosphere. The following year, in which the United States did ratify a nuclear test ban treaty, he campaigned for Medicare, incurring the wrath of the American Medical Association, many of whose members were already suspicious of a colleague who wrote advice columns for the Ladies Home Journal and Redbook instead of writing technical monographs for the medical journals.

Spock was an early opponent of the Indo-China war; his view on that subject, Dr. Spock on Vietnam, appeared in 1968. As the war escalated, so did antiwar protest, in which Spock participated vigorously, marching and demonstrating with militant youths who had not yet been born when he began his medical career. Conservatives accused him of having created, in large measure, the youth protest movement of the 1960s. Ignoring his many admonitions to parents in Baby and Child Care that they should "set limits," his political opponents accused Spock of teaching "permissiveness," by which they claimed an entire generation of American youth had been raised and ruined. In vain, Spock pointed out that similar student protests were happening in Third World countries where his book enjoyed no circulation and were not happening in Western Europe countries where it sold well.

Because of his own strict personal upbringing and his acute moral sense, Spock may have intended a lot less when he told parents to "relax" than some of them realized. In 1968, he revised Baby and Child Care to make his intentions more clear, now cautioning his readers "Don't be afraid that your children will dislike you" if you set those limits and enforce them. Nevertheless, that 1968 edition showed a 50 percent drop in sales, mainly, Spock thought, because of his stand on Vietnam.

On May 20, 1968, along with several other leading war protesters, Spock was put on trial for conspiracy. The charge was that he had counseled young people to resist the draft. In the superheated political atmosphere of the times, he was convicted, but on appeal the verdict was set aside on a technicality. Some indignant readers

Benjamin Spock (The Library of Congress. Reproduced with permission.)

returned their well-thumbed copies of Baby and Child Care in order to prevent further undermining of their children's patriotism. To many other readers, however, the government's indictment of the baby doctor seemed rather like prosecuting Santa Claus.

Two books published in 1970, Decent and Indecent: Our Personal and Political Behavior and A Teenager's Guide to Life and Love, made it clear that Spock was a good deal more of a traditional moralist than either his friends or his enemies were aware. He had been driven into the antiwar and other reform movements by the same imperious, old-fashioned conscience that propelled some of his opponents in exactly the opposite direction.

At the same time, the doctor showed himself capable of growing and changing. His social activism mutated into socialism, and in 1972 he ran for president on the People's Party ticket. He was also capable of admitting a mistake. Badgered for some five years on the lecture platform by feminist objectors to the gender-role stereo-types of fathers and mothers as they appeared in Baby and Child Care, he eventually conceded that much of what they had said had been right. In 1976, 30 years after its initial publication, Spock brought out a third version of the famous book, deleting material he himself termed "sexist" and calling for greater sharing by fathers in the parental role. He also yielded 45 percent of subsequent book royalties in the divorce settlement that year with his wife, who contended she had done much more of the work on Baby and Child Care than he had ever acknowledged. Spock was remarried in the fall of 1976 to Mary Morgan Councille.

Formally retired in 1967, Spock was the kind of person who in spirit never really retires. Contemplating his own death as his health began to fail in the 1980s, he wrote in 1985 (at the age of 82) that he did not want any lugubrious funeral tunes played over him: "My ideal would be the New Orleans black funeral, in which friends snake-dance through the streets to the music of a jazz band." He had chronic bronchitis and suffered a stroke in 1989. His wife, Mary, collaborated with Spock on his autobiography, Spock on Spock, which was published in 1989. His book A Better World for Our Children was published in 1994 and explored the relationship between child-rearing and politics. According to an article in the Detroit Free Press, Spock said "When I look at our society and think of the millions of children exposed every day to its harmful effects, I am near despair." Dr. Spock died at his home in La Jolla, California on March 15, 1998 at the age of 94.

Further Reading

Bloom, Lynn Z. Doctor Spock: biography of a conservative radical. 1972.

Maier, Thomas. Dr. Spock: an American life. 1998.

Mitford, Jessica. The trial of Dr. Spock, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Michael Ferber, Mitchell Goodman, and Marcus Raskin. 1969.

Kellogg, M.A. "Updating Dr. Spock." Newsweek. March 3, 1976.

Spock, Benjamin. Decent and indecent. 1970.

Spock, Benjamin. A Teenager's Guide to Life and Love. 1970.

Spock, Benjamin. "A way to say farewell." Parade Magazine. March 10, 1985.

Spock, Benjamin. Spock on parenting. 1988.

Spock, Benjamin. Spock on Spock: a memoir of growing up with the century. 1989.

Spock, Benjamin. A better world for our children. National Press Books, 1994.

Additional topics

Psychology EncyclopediaFamous Psychologists & Scientists