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Dr. Benjamin Spock: Biography & Theories

Instructor: Jo Kenney

Jo has experience as an instructional designer and courseware developer and has a doctorate in Education Technology.

This is a brief biography of Dr. Benjamin Spock (1903-1998), one of the world's most famous pediatricians. Included is an overview of his influential and controversial theories.

Depending on your age and interests, the name Dr. Spock may conjure up images of a pointy-eared science officer. It may also bring to mind the author of what may be the second best-selling book of the twentieth century: The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. This man, born in 1903, grew up to be one of the most influential figures in the twentieth century.

Dr Spock in 1976

Early Life

The son of a conservative railroad lawyer, Benjamin Spock had devoted but authoritarian parents. As was typical at the time, they believed their children should stick to a strict schedule and receive more discipline than affection. Spock was the oldest of six children and helped care for his younger brothers and sisters. He was an active young man, rowing on the gold medal team in the 1924 Olympics. He earned his M.D. in 1929, graduating at the head of his class at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, and then passed his pediatrician boards in 1937. Believing that many of the issues facing care for children were psychological rather than medical in nature, he did a psychiatric residency at a New York hospital, trusting it would help him better understand child development and create a holistic approach. He was subsequently highly influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud. Spock practiced pediatrics in New York City after graduating from Columbia and taught pediatrics at Cornell University Medical College from 1933 to 1947. He then taught child development at Western Reserve University (now Case Western Reserve University) in Cleveland, Ohio, from 1955 to 1967. He resigned from teaching to devote himself to the antiwar movement.

Personal Life

Spock was married twice and had two sons: Michael and John. His first marriage was to Jane Cheney, who assisted him in his research and writing. They divorced after two children and 48 years of marriage. He then married Mary Morgan, who had worked as his assistant at times. His personal life saw tragedy when on December 25, 1983, his grandson Peter committed suicide. Dr. Spock died in March of 1998 at age 94.

Theories

While many of his contemporaries had a demeanor more like Star Trek's Mr. Spock, authoritative and supposedly void of emotion, Dr. Spock was charming and interacted easily with mothers and their children. He had a very easygoing manner and writing style, giving parents permission to make their own choices concerning how to raise their children.

Dr. Spock's work influenced the parents of the baby boomers as he encouraged a more nuanced and affectionate approach to childrearing than his contemporaries and predecessors. His work was heavily influenced by Freud, but he expressed the ideas in language that was more acceptable and approachable, and many who were influenced by his work never knew of the connection. Dr. Spock wrote or helped write over a dozen books and numerous magazine columns in such publications as Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, and Parenting. His first and most famous, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, has sold over 50,000,000 copies worldwide and has been translated into 42 languages. His works include:

  • The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care (1946, 9th edition, 2012)
  • A Baby's First Year (1954)
  • Feeding Your Baby and Child (1955)
  • Dr. Spock Talks With Mothers (1961)
  • Problems of Parents (1962)
  • Caring for Your Disabled Child (1965)
  • Dr. Spock on Vietnam (1968)
  • Decent and Indecent (1970)
  • A Teenager's Guide to Life and Love (1970)
  • Raising Children in a Difficult Time (1974)
  • Spock on Parenting (1988)
  • Spock on Spock: a Memoir of Growing Up With the Century (1989)
  • A Better World for Our Children (1994)
  • Dr. Spock's the School Years: The Emotional and Social Development of Children (2001)

Cover to the 40th Anniversary Edition of Dr. Spock

The Search for Peace

Spock believed that caring for children also meant leaving them a peaceful future, and in 1967, he devoted himself to the antiwar moment. What was the point of raising children, he argued, if they were just going to go off to war to die? His strong opposition to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam led to his arrest and conviction in 1968 for supposedly counseling draft evasion, however, his sentence was later overturned.

Some of Dr. Spock's beliefs were quite radical for the time. He believed in free medical care, the legalization of abortion and marijuana, a guaranteed minimum income, nuclear disarmament, and the withdrawal of all American troops in foreign countries, similar to today's Libertarian party. He even marched in opposition to the Vietnam War with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1972, he ran for president as the People's Party candidate.

Much of his advice is still followed today, however, science has discredited some of his work, including the idea of putting infants to sleep on their stomach. He felt that this would help them from choking if they were to vomit during the night, however, sleeping on the stomach has been shown to be connected to sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).

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