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.)