March 17, 1998 in Nation/World

Adviser To Millions Of Parents, Dr. Benjamin Spock Dies At 94 His Book On Baby And Child Care Sold 50 Million Copies

Mark Feeney Boston Globe
 

Dr. Benjamin Spock, the pediatrician whose name became a byword for enlightened parenting and whose book “Baby and Child Care” served as holy writ for the rearing of tens of millions of baby boomers, died Sunday of natural causes at his La Jolla, Calif., home. He was 94.

“He was at home with his wife at his bedside and his local physician. That was his wish,” said Spock’s cardiologist, Dr. Stephen Pauker of Boston.

Last month, Spock’s medical plight drew widespread attention after his wife, Mary Morgan, wrote a letter to friends and family members detailing the $10,000-a-month expenses necessitated by a string of illnesses that included a heart attack, stroke, anemia and multiple bouts of pneumonia.

Spock’s impact on the postwar generation was so profound that such conservatives as Dr. Norman Vincent Peale and Vice President Spiro T. Agnew cited the “permissiveness” of his child-care views as a source of the youth rebellions of the ‘60s the period when those first raised on his book came of age. Agnew, when heckled, liked to retort, “Look at these youths that Spock has spawned.”

Encouraging such attacks was Spock’s political activism. A leading opponent of the Vietnam War, he was one of five defendants in a celebrated 1968 conspiracy trial held in federal district court in Boston. With three others, he was found guilty of conspiracy to aid and abet draft resistance, but a federal appeals court overturned the conviction in 1969.

That supporters of the war should fear Spock made considerable sense. At the time, “Baby and Child Care” had sold 22 million copies. (The figure is now over 50 million, making it the world’s best-selling nonfiction publication after the Bible, with translations in 29 foreign languages.) The book had simply become part of the climate of middle-class American life, exerting an influence even on those who had never opened it.

What accounted for the book’s unprecedented popularity? Spock felt that the key was his desire “to give readers confidence by reminding them they already know a lot, and that the professionals don’t know everything. I sympathize. I try not to be pompous and I bend over backward to reassure parents, not to frighten or scold them.”

In addition, the book rode the wave of three great social transformations: the baby boom itself, the paperback revolution’s democratizing of information (“Baby and Child Care” was commissioned by a softcover publisher), and the growing affluence of postwar America, which allowed parents to lavish unprecedented amounts of time, money, and attention on their offspring.

The essence of his book, Spock felt, wasn’t permissiveness but common sense. Indeed, the book’s title when first published in 1946 was “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care.” If babies are crying, feed or comfort them; if children are unable or unwilling to do something, don’t force them. In a sense, Spock (who was raised an Episcopalian) was simply bringing the Golden Rule to child care: Do unto others - regardless of age - as you would have them do unto you.

With his distrust of theory and embrace of experience, Spock very much belonged in the American grain. A book whose first two sentences are “Trust yourself” and “You know more than you think you do” is grounded in a democratic, egalitarian ideal. An expert wary of experts, Spock was the perfect authority figure for parents eager for expertise but weary of condescension. It was no coincidence, perhaps, that “Baby and Child Care” was written during the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. The book’s underlying ethos brought the New Deal, as well as a new deal, to the nursery.

Benjamin McLane Spock was born May 2, 1903, in New Haven, Conn. He was the eldest of the six children, four girls and two boys, of Benjamin Ives Spock, a railroad lawyer who was conservative in his politics, and Mildred Louise Stoughton Spock.

After graduating from Andover, Spock entered Yale College, where he majored in English, minored in history and, as he recalled years later, “gravitated toward medical school without any real decision.”

Six feet 4 inches tall and broad-shouldered, he was, literally and figuratively, a big man on campus, a member of the Yale crew that won in the Paris Olympics in 1924.

After earning a B.A. in 1925, he studied at the Yale Medical School from 1925 to 1927, and then transferred to Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons and earned his M.D. degree there in 1929, after being at the head of his class at the end of the last two years.

He interned at Presbyterian Hospital in New York and was a resident in pediatrics at the New York Nursery and Child’s Hospital.

In 1943, he began three years of writing “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care,” spending countless evenings dictating it to his first wife, the former Jane Davenport Cheney, who typed it up as he went along and assisted in many other ways. Dictating the book helped to give it the conversational tone that was one of its great attractions.

Spock joined the Navy in 1944 and kept on writing in his spare time.

After giving up his New York practice in 1947, Spock was affiliated with the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., and went on to serve as professor of child development at the University of Pittsburgh from 1951 to 1955 and at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland from 1955 to 1967, when he retired from teaching.

In 1976, the year that the fourth edition of his baby and child care book came out, he was divorced from his first wife, Jane, whom he married in 1927. Later in 1976, Spock was married to Morgan.


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