Benjamin Spock Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Through his advocacy, publications, and activities related to child care and developmental psychology, Spock sought to advise parents on matters and issues previously ignored by mainstream pediatric medicine. As a social activist, he called for socialized medicine, an end to U.S. military police action abroad, and nuclear disarmament.

Early Life

Benjamin McLane Spock was the oldest of six children of Benjamin Ives Spock, a conservative Connecticut railroad lawyer, and Mildred Louise Stoughton, a native of Vermont. As a child, he attended Hamden Hall and Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Upon graduation from Phillips Academy, Spock entered Yale College, where he majored in English and minored in history. A very tall young man (six feet four inches) with an athletic build and broad shoulders, Spock was a member of the Yale crew that won a gold medal in the 1924 Olympics held in Paris. He went on to study at the Yale Medical School for two years before transferring to the Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, receiving his medical degree in 1929. He interned at Presbyterian Hospital in New York, was a pediatrics resident at the New York Nursery and Child’s Hospital, and spent ten months as a psychiatry resident at New York Hospital. The first individual ever to train professionally in both pediatrics and psychoanalysis, he also received training at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute from 1933 to 1938. He later attributed much of his professional success to the psychoanalytic training he received during the 1930’s.

Spock began his medical career in 1933 as a pediatrician in New York City. The first few years of his practice were difficult. The Depression made collection of payment for services extremely difficult. The three to five dollars he charged for office visits, about average for the time, was difficult for the average citizen to afford, especially considering the fact that about one in four Americans was unemployed. He received few patients from referrals during those early years and barely paid his expenses. His eventual success as a physician, despite the overwhelming difficulties, was partly because of his extensive knowledge of medicine and partly because of his unique bedside manner. He wore a business suit instead of the typical white doctor’s coat, an effort to make patients feel more at ease. He continued to make house calls long after most in the profession had discontinued the practice. He supplemented his income during those early years as an instructor of pediatrics at Cornell Medical College, an assistant attending physician at New York Hospital, the part-time school doctor at the Brearley School, and a consultant for the New York City Health Department. His relaxed, conversational lecture style put listeners at ease while garnering increasing respect in the medical community.

Life’s Work

In 1943 Spock began writing The Commonsense Book of Baby and Child Care, the book that would eventually make him the best-known doctor in America. He spent three years dictating it to his first wife, Jane Davenport Cheney, whom he had married in 1927. She typed as he spoke, and she edited the text. Spock was drafted into the Navy in 1944 and worked as a psychiatrist in military hospitals on both the East and West Coasts, but he continued to write. More than half of his tenure in the military was at the U.S. Naval Hospital, St. Alban’s, in Queens, New York. The assignment allowed him to live with his family in Manhattan and continue working on the book. He left the Navy in 1946, the same year The Commonsense Book of Baby and Child Care was published.

The Commonsense Book of Baby and Child Care advocated previously controversial methods of child care. Spock stressed the psychological state of being in child development and progressive childhood guidance at every stage of development. For example, Spock wrote that it was not necessary for mothers to stick to rigid feeding schedules for their babies and that it was unnatural for a mother to have to wait for an established feeding time while her baby cried. Such statements contradicted conventional medical practice. The accompanying illustrations, by Dorothea Fox, complemented the text and comforted the reader.


(The entire section is 1784 words.)

Benjamin Spock Biography

(American Culture and Institutions Through Literature, 1960-1969)

Early Life

Benjamin McLane Spock’s Dutch parents were very strict and expected him to achieve academic and professional success. In 1921, after two years at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Spock was sent to Yale to study architecture. He soon switched to a premedical curriculum, and after earning his baccalaureate degree in 1925, he proceeded to Columbia University Medical School where he was awarded a degree in 1929. Following several years of postgraduate study in psychiatry, he began private practice in New York City. Between 1944 and 1946, Spock served as a navy psychiatrist, and it was during this time that he wrote The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (later retitled Baby and Child Care), which when published in 1946 made him a household name in the United States. The book’s staggering success led to academic posts in the University of Minnesota (1947- 1951), the University of Pittsburgh (1951-1955), and Case Western Reserve University (1955-1967).

The 1960’s

By the late 1950’s, Spock, who was originally a Republican, began to describe himself as a New Deal Democrat and became a supporter of progressive social legislation. He was especially interested in health care initiatives, including Medicare. In 1962, he became a spokesperson for SANE (National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy). Spock strongly backed Lyndon B. Johnson in the 1964 presidential campaign, but he turned against Johnson in 1965 when he realized that the president had no intention of withdrawing from Vietnam. From that moment, Spock put his reputation and fame on the line by becoming one of the most recognizable opponents of the United States’ participation in the Vietnam conflict. In 1967, he resigned his university post to devote as much time as possible to his antiwar and antidraft activities. In 1968, the U.S. Justice Department succeeded in gaining an indictment against Spock and four others, including Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin, for aiding and abetting violation of the Selective Service Act. A sensational trial resulted in convictions for four of the men, including Spock, in July, 1968. Spock was sentenced to two years in jail. However, a year later a U.S. Court of Appeals overturned the verdict, citing erroneous instructions by the trial judge.

Later Life

During the early 1970’s, Spock persisted in his vocal opposition to the war in Vietnam. He participated in every major antiwar demonstration and continued to urge young American males to avoid conscription by whatever means possible. When the Vietnam War ended, Spock shifted his interest to a variety of other social causes while producing frequent new editions of his best-selling book. In the 1980’s and 1990’s, he gradually receded, although never completely, from the...

(The entire section is 1161 words.)