Benjamin Spock: Raising the World’s Children

Boston police clear a path through demonstrators as Dr. Benjamin Spock, right, leaves Federal Court after arraignment on charges of counseling young men to avoid the draft in Boston on Jan. 29, 1968. Demonstrators were from groups supporting and opposing the stand of the famed baby doctor against the Vietnam War - © AP Photo

By Andy Piascik

When Dr. Benjamin Spock authored The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care in 1946, he became the world’s most famous pediatrician. His book made an immediate impact and, despite heavy criticism from some, remains among the most influential works written on the subject to date.

Benjamin Spock Born in New Haven

Benjamin Spock was born on May 2, 1903, in New Haven, Connecticut. His father was a corporate attorney who worked at various times for the New Haven Railroad and the Chase Brass Company in Waterbury. Like his father, Spock attended school at the Phillips Academy and Yale University. In addition to being an outstanding student at Yale, Spock excelled on the rowing team. He and his Yale teammates represented the United States at the 1924 Summer Olympics in Paris and won the gold medal in the eight-man rowing event.

Spock graduated first in his class from Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons in 1929 and began practicing pediatric medicine that year in Manhattan. While in medical school, he wed Jane Cheney of Manchester, Connecticut, and the couple remained married until 1976. Jane even assisted in the research and writing of Spock’s 1946 breakthrough book.

Dr. Spock holding baby, April 19, 1977. © John Gillooly - Suffolk University, Moakley Archive & Institute

Dr. Spock holding baby, April 19, 1977. © John Gillooly – Suffolk University, Moakley Archive & Institute

The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care

Central to Spock’s theories about child-rearing was the idea that parents needed to be more nurturing. In the era that he wrote, he directed his message almost exclusively at mothers and he encouraged women to be more responsive to the needs of their children. In contrast to the established approaches, he urged mothers to feed their babies when they became hungry, rather than adhering to a rigid meal schedule, and to pick them up, hold them, kiss them, and otherwise display affection when they cried. Spock also encouraged parents to place more trust in themselves and rely less on the established wisdom of experts (doctors included).

The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care became a best-seller shortly after publication and more copies of it sold in its first 50 years than any book except the Bible. Spock’s second wife, Mary Morgan, whom he wed in 1976, introduced him to yoga, massage, a macrobiotic diet, and meditation. Stating that Morgan “gave me back my youth,” Spock incorporated some of these life changes into later editions of his work by, for example, recommending a vegan diet for children over the age of two.

Vietnam War Era Protests

Back during the Great Depression, Spock became interested in radical political and economic ideas. He admired Socialist Norman Thomas and regularly attended his lectures. Prefiguring his later activism and concern about war and international affairs, Spock opposed the rise of fascism in Europe beginning with General Francisco Franco’s revolt in 1936 against the new democratic government in Spain.

Though Spock maintained an affinity for socialism, he remained largely apolitical until the early 1960s when he became an active member and officer of the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. He was an early opponent of the Vietnam War and a featured speaker at anti-war demonstrations beginning in 1967. In 1968, he and four other activists faced arrest and trial on federal charges of violating the Selective Service laws for conspiring to actively encourage young men to resist the draft. Authorities helped convict Spock and three of the other defendants and sentenced them to two years imprisonment, but the court set aside the convictions after appeal.

Though Spock retired from medicine in 1968, he continued writing and lecturing for years thereafter. He and his second wife co-authored a memoir of his life that hit bookstore shelves when Spock was 86, and his last book on pediatrics launched when he was 91. Spock died three years later, on March 15, 1998, at the age of 94. The power of his words lived on, however, and in the seven decades since its release, publishers translated The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (the work for which Spock remains best known) into 49 languages, resulting in the sale of more than 50 million copies.

Bridgeport native Andy Piascik is an award-winning author who has written for many publications and websites over the last four decades. He is also the author of two books.

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Bloom, Lynn Z. Doctor Spock: Biography of a Conservative Radical. Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972.
Maier, Thomas. Dr. Spock: An American Life. New York, NY: Harcourt Brace, 1998.
Spock, Benjamin, and Mary Morgan. Spock on Spock: A Memoir of Growing up with the Century. New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 1989.
Mitford, Jessica. The Trial of Dr. Spock, the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Michael Ferber, Mitchell Goodman, and Marcus Raskin. New York, NY: Knopf, 1969.

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