Pediatrician Benjamin Spock Dies
By Bart Barnes
Benjamin M. Spock, 94, the United States' most celebrated pediatrician, who more than 50 years ago wrote the definitive child-rearing manual for millions of parents throughout the world, died Sunday at his home in San Diego. In recent months, he had suffered strokes, a heart attack and several bouts of pneumonia.
Spock's book, "Baby and Child Care," has sold more than 50 million copies in the United States and other English-speaking countries in six editions, the most recent of which was published in 1992. It has been translated into 38 languages and distributed in 31 foreign countries. A seventh edition is scheduled for publication May 2, the 95th anniversary of Spock's birth.
The book's initial publication in 1946 coincided with the beginning of the post-World War II baby boom, and its author broke new ground by urging young parents to be flexible about raising their children and to have some fun in the process. So universal was its influence that the generation of children reared after its publication was sometimes known as the "Spock generation."
When those children rebelled against authority and staged disruptive and violent protests against the Vietnam War during the 1960s and 1970s, several of their elders blamed Spock, who by then had himself become one of the United States' most celebrated anti-war demonstrators. Not only was Spock leading the protests, his critics complained, but he was responsible for a permissiveness in the early child-rearing patterns of the young protesters that caused them to run amok in the first place.
Vice President Spiro T. Agnew; Richard J. Daley, mayor of Chicago; and Norman Vincent Peale, a New York Methodist Episcopal clergyman and writer, were among those who castigated Spock, arguing that his methods of bringing up children had caused a breakdown in discipline and a collapse of conventional morality. "And now Spock is out in the mobs, leading the permissive babies raised on his undisciplined teaching," Peale said from his pulpit.
Spock, who also wrote monthly columns on various aspects of child-rearing for publications such as Ladies Home Journal and Redbook, always maintained that his views had been misinterpreted and that, in fact, he supported a firm disciplinary hand in the raising of children.
But it was a fact that his methods represented a break with the prevailing wisdom that existed before publication of "Baby and Child Care." Then, leading thinkers in pediatrics struck an authoritarian pose and urged parents to follow a rigid schedule in feeding and toilet-training their babies. Overt displays of affection were discouraged, and hugs and kisses were considered inappropriate, as was allowing a baby to sit on a parent's lap.
Urged Spock: "Don't be afraid to love [your baby]. . . . Every baby needs to be smiled at, talked to, played with, fondled -- gently and lovingly. . . . You may hear people say that you have to get your baby strictly regulated in his feeding, sleeping, bowel movements and other habits -- but don't believe this. He doesn't have to be sternly trained. . . . Be natural and comfortable and enjoy your baby."
Tall and lanky with a deep, booming voice, the bespectacled and balding Spock soon became a surrogate pediatrician to millions, and his book, which initially sold at the rate of a million copies a year, made his name a household word throughout the United States. It also increased his annual income substantially.
He began every edition with this advice: "Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do." He avoided medical jargon, writing in a straightforward, down-to-earth manner that young parents found reassuring and easy to understand. Upon reading the book for the first time, his own mother said, "Why, Benny, it's quite sensible."
In a statement released by the White House yesterday, President Clinton said: "For half a century, Dr. Spock guided parents across the country and around the world in their most important job -- raising their children. As a pediatrician, writer and teacher, Dr. Spock offered sage advice and gentle support to generations of families, and he taught all of us the importance of respecting children. He was a tireless advocate, devoting himself to the cause of improving the lives of children."
In the years since its initial publication, "Baby and Child Care" was revised several times, and subsequent editions included new or expanded sections dealing with the changing roles of fathers in pregnancy, childbirth and household chores; traditional gender roles for boys and girls; divorce and single parenting; teenage pregnancy; and new medical information about such items as milk, eggs, orange juice and aspirin. During this period, Spock wrote or co-wrote 11 other books on various aspects of parenting, child care and growing up.
His work helped spawn a cottage industry of pediatric media specialists and the publication of scores of books on techniques of effective child-rearing and coping with problems of infancy, early childhood and adolescence. In the wake of Spock came child-care experts such as Penelope Leach, T. Berry Brazelton and Gary and Anne Marie Ezzo with advice on how best to raise children, which they dispensed in books and on radio and television talk shows.
Today, in the computer age, the Internet abounds with dozens of Web sites offering tips on child care. A generation earlier, public television weighed in with shows such as "Sesame Street."
With the emergence of the women's rights movement, experts predictably turned to the question of the effect on children when both parents work full time. In 1987, Anita Shreve wrote in "Remaking Motherhood" that children of working mothers could achieve better social adjustment, greater self-esteem and even "a higher I.Q."
"Spock started it all," said Larrie Greenberg, director of the office of medical education at Children's Hospital in Washington and a professor of pediatrics at George Washington University Medical School. "One of the things he suggests in his books is that the relationship between parents and child is a unique relationship. For a lot of pediatricians today, that special relationship does not allow you to provide rigid ways and guidelines that will work for everybody. . . . We're seeing different approaches, some of which are complementary, some of which are redundant."
Over the years, the basic thrust of "Baby and Child Care" never changed, and when critics complained that Spock failed to change with the times, he answered simply that he got it right the first time.
Not until he was in his late fifties did he become a political activist. He was deeply disturbed by the United States' resumption of nuclear testing in the atmosphere in 1962, and on a spring Saturday in Cleveland, he joined a demonstration in support of nuclear disarmament. Subsequently, he became one of the early opponents of U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.
"What is the use of physicians like myself trying to help parents to bring up children who are healthy and happy, to have them killed in such numbers for a cause that is ignoble?" he said.
As the Vietnam War intensified in the late 1960s, so did Spock's participation in anti-war demonstrations, and in a highly publicized trial in Boston in 1968, he was convicted of illegally conspiring to aid and abet resistance to the draft. He told the jury that he considered the war "totally illegal, immoral, unwinnable and detrimental to the best interests of the United States." He was sentenced to two years in prison, but a federal appeals court overturned the conviction a year later.
Benjamin McLane Spock was born May 2, 1903, in New Haven, Conn., the eldest of six children of Benjamin Ives Spock, general counsel of the New Haven Railroad for many years, and Mildred Stoughton Spock. Spock recalled them as devoted parents who nevertheless followed a stern and puritanical child-rearing policy. Children took their meals separately from their parents, were in bed by 6:45 p.m. and were not allowed to eat certain foods, such as bananas, until they were 12.
At Yale University, he rowed on the varsity crew team that won a gold medal in the 1924 Olympics in Paris. He initially planned to be an architect, but he changed his mind after working one summer as a counselor at a camp for disabled children in Newington, Conn.
He attended Yale Medical School for two years, then transferred to Columbia University, where he received a medical degree in 1929. After internships in medicine and pediatrics and a residency in psychiatry and psychoanalytic training, Spock opened a private practice in pediatrics in New York in 1933.
At the time, the country was in the throes of the Great Depression, and there were millions who could not afford a private pediatrician. For several years, Spock barely managed to cover his expenses. He was different from many physicians in that he found ordinary illnesses as interesting as rare diseases. He was said to have had a way of making each mother who brought her baby to him believe that not only was she the mother he wanted most to see but her baby was the baby he wanted most to see.
Lynn Z. Bloom, his biographer, called Spock a "lanky pediatric Santa Claus" and observed that generations of his patients "seemed to know that he liked them and that his interest in their problems was genuine."
By 1938, his practice solidly established, Spock's reputation had spread widely enough to attract the attention of the Doubleday publishing house, which asked him to write a child-care manual. He declined, saying he didn't think he knew enough.
Five years later, officials from Pocket Books came to him with a similar proposal; they planned to charge only 25 cents a copy, and at that price, they were confident they could sell "hundreds of thousands of copies whether or not it was any good."
Spock accepted the offer, and for the next three years, including two years on active duty with the Navy, he spent his evenings dictating material for the book to his wife, the former Jane Cheney of South Manchester, Conn., whom he had married in 1927. The bulk of his material came from his years as a practicing pediatrician and the concerns and worries that parents shared with him in his office. "I never looked at my records," he said. "It all came out of my head."
He wrote because he wanted a book that would combine good pediatrics with good child psychology. "I believed the two should be tightly integrated," he said. He wanted his book to make parents more comfortable and more effective, and he said he found most existing literature on child-rearing to be "condescending, scolding or intimidating."
Although the book brought fame and fortune to Spock, it also put his marriage under stress, and his wife felt that she had a greater role in its writing than Spock ever acknowledged. It was a sore spot that festered for years, and it was one of the contributing factors to their divorce in 1975 after two children and 48 years of marriage. Less than a year later, Spock married Mary Morgan, a woman almost 40 years younger than he. Until he was well into his nineties, they sailed regularly in the Caribbean and lived for part of each year in a 22-foot Winnebago named the Tortoise, which they kept parked in the yard of friends in Miami.
Along with the fame that accompanied publication of "Baby and Child Care" came an offer of a teaching and research job from the Mayo Clinic, and in 1947, Spock moved to Minnesota. In 1951, he went to the University of Pittsburgh, where he remained for four years, then in 1955 became professor of child development at what was then known as Western Reserve University in Cleveland. He remained there until he retired in 1967.
Spock was already deeply involved in the anti-war movement when he retired, and he would remain so through the duration of the Vietnam War. When the U.S. military escalation in Vietnam began in earnest in the winter of 1965, Spock wrote letters of protest to the White House, then, when those efforts proved futile, joined the street demonstrations.
His age, his height and his conservative dress and demeanor made him conspicuous amid the ragtag bands of youths protesting the war. He was part of a delegation that delivered 992 turned-in draft cards to the Justice Department in Washington in 1967, and he was arrested in December of that year for crossing a police line in an act of civil disobedience at an armed forces induction center in New York.
Spock's 1968 trial for conspiracy to aid and abet violations of the Selective Service Act, along with Yale University chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr., former White House disarmament aide Marcus Raskin, author Mitchell Goodman and Harvard graduate student William Ferber, was one of the most celebrated trials of the decade.
At a news conference after his conviction and sentencing, Spock said the war "violates the United Nations Charter, the Geneva accords and the United States' promise to obey the laws of international conduct. It is totally, abominably illegal." A year later, an appeals court set aside the conviction on the grounds that the judge had instructed the jury improperly.
Spock continued protesting even after the last U.S. troops left Vietnam in 1973, turning his efforts once again toward issues such as nuclear disarmament and cuts in the federal budget affecting social welfare programs. He ran for president in 1972 as a candidate of the Peoples Party, getting 75,000 votes.
He was arrested for trespassing at the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire in a 1978 protest; he was arrested at the White House in 1981 for protesting proposed budget cuts; and he was arrested for blocking an entrance to the Pentagon in a 1980 anti-nuclear demonstration. As he passed his 80th birthday, he continued to give 75 to 100 talks a year on the nuclear arms race, pediatrics or both, and he divided his time between a home and office in Arkansas and his sailboat in Maine and the Virgin Islands.
Survivors include his wife, Mary, and sons, Michael and John.
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