This Day In Literary History
On May 2nd, 1903, the legendary American writer Dr. Benjamin Spock was born. He was born Benjamin McLane Spock, Jr. in New Haven, Connecticut.
The eldest of six children, Spock helped care for his younger brothers and sisters, which would plant the seeds for his future career as a pediatrician and author. Following in the footsteps of his father, he enrolled at Yale University after graduating high school.
He first studied literature and history, then changed his major and studied medicine. After attending the Yale School of Medicine, he studied at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons.
While at Yale, he became a star athlete on the rowing crew and won a gold medal for rowing (Men's Eights) at the 1924 Summer Olympic Games in Paris. He would graduate from Yale at the top of his class.
Dr. Benjamin Spock was the first pediatrician to study psychoanalysis and incorporate it into his practice, in order to better understand his patients' emotional needs and the psychology of family dynamics. The insights he gained would inspire him to write his classic book, which would be published in 1946.
The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, later shortened to Dr. Spock's Baby & Child Care, was far more than just a doctor's guide to maintaining the good physical health of babies and children.
The 500+ page book was a thorough and revolutionary guide to child rearing, based on the author's experiences as a pediatrician and as a parent of two sons. Dr. Spock's book was a stinging rebuke of traditional (conservative) child rearing methods.
For decades before its publication, most pediatricians and child psychologists had advised parents to be very strict with their children and not show them too much affection. A child raised in such a manner, they believed, would grow up to be strong and independent.
In the 1968 edition of his book, Dr. Spock wrote "We need idealistic children" who could deal with the "enormous, frightening problems in our country and in the world." He elaborated further:
"We have an overwhelming supply of the most powerful weapons the world has ever known... we are in imminent danger of annihilation... we are interfering arrogantly in the affairs of other nations and arousing worldwide resentment."
He concluded that "Our only realistic hope... is to bring up our children with a feeling that they are in this world not for their own satisfaction but primarily to serve others."
In the 1960s, Dr. Spock became a political activist for the New Left. He joined the Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy, aka SANE, in 1962. As the war in Vietnam began to escalate, he became a vocal opponent of the conflict.
Then Attorney General Ramsey Clark charged Spock and four others (William Sloane Coffin, Marcus Raskin, Mitchell Goodman, and Michael Ferber) with conspiracy to counsel, aide, and abet resistance to the draft.
Spock and three of the four other defendants were convicted. Spock was sentenced to two years in prison, but his conviction was thrown out on appeal. In 1967, at the National Conference for New Politics in Chicago, Dr. Spock threw his hat into the political ring.
He was selected to be Martin Luther King, Jr.'s running mate in the 1968 presidential election. Their bid for office fell apart when the conference was broken up by agents provocateurs working for the government.
It wouldn't be Spock's last bid for office; he would become the People's Party candidate for President in the 1972 election. His platform included the establishment of socialized medicine and the legalization of abortion and marijuana.
He also called for an end to the "victimless crime" laws that persecuted homosexuals, a guaranteed minimum income for working families, and the immediate withdrawal of all American troops from foreign countries.
The following year, Spock signed the Writers and Editors War Tax Protest, in which he and others refused to pay taxes to support the Vietnam War. He also published a book called Dr. Spock on Vietnam.
During the author's lifetime, Dr. Spock's Baby & Child Care would be revised and reissued in five more editions, for a total of six. The seventh edition was published posthumously in 2004; his widow and second wife, Mary Morgan, had served as his research assistant and business manager.
When they married in 1976, she was 33 years old and he 73. He credited the restoration of his health and his long life to Mary, as she had introduced him to her health conscious lifestyle, which included yoga, meditation, massage, and a vegetarian diet.
Of vegetarianism, Spock would say, "Children who grow up getting nutrition from plant foods rather than meats have a tremendous health advantage. They are less likely to develop weight problems, diabetes, high blood pressure and some forms of cancer.”
The first edition of Dr. Spock's Baby & Child Care sold 500,000 copies in its first six months of publication. To this date, the book has sold over fifty million copies and continues to influence generations of parents. It also continues to court controversy.
In the late 1960s, then Vice President Spiro Agnew blamed Dr. Spock's child rearing books for the creation of the youth counterculture, (he called them the Spock Generation) accusing him of promoting permissiveness and disrespect for authority.
Agnew would resign in disgrace after being charged with evading taxes and accepting bribes, but many conservatives agreed with his assessment of Dr. Spock. In his last book, A Better World for Our Children (1994), Spock addressed this criticism:
The Permissive Label: A couple weeks after my indictment [for 'conspiracy to counsel, aid and abet resistance to the military draft'], I was accused by Reverend Norman Vincent Peale, a well-known New York clergyman and author who supported the Vietnam War, of corrupting an entire generation. In a sermon widely reported in the press, Reverend Peale blamed me for all the lack of patriotism, lack of responsibility, and lack of discipline of the young people who opposed the war.
All these failings, he said, were due to my having told their parents to give them "instant gratification" as babies. I was showered with blame in dozens of editorials and columns from primarily conservative newspapers all over the country heartily agreeing with Peale's assertions. Many parents have since stopped me on the street or in airports to thank me for helping them to raise fine children, and they've often added, "I don't see any instant gratification in Baby and Child Care."
I answer that they're right--I've always advised parents to give their children firm, clear leadership and to ask for cooperation and politeness in return. On the other hand I've also received letters from conservative mothers saying, in effect, "Thank God I've never used your horrible book. That's why my children take baths, wear clean clothes and get good grades in school."
Since I received the first accusation twenty-two years after Baby and Child Care was originally published - and since those who write about how harmful my book is invariably assure me they've never used it - I think it's clear that the hostility is to my politics rather than my pediatric advice. And though I've been denying the accusation for twenty-five years, one of the first questions I get from many reporters and interviewers is, "Doctor Spock, are you still permissive?" You can't catch up with a false accusation.
Two other criticisms of Dr. Spock's Baby & Child Care had nothing to do with politics and weren't really the author's fault because the evidence proving their validity hadn't been discovered yet.
In his book, Dr. Spock had supported circumcision and had encouraged parents to have their babies sleep on their stomachs. For many years, the medical community believed that circumcision was beneficial because the foreskin was prone to infection.
Now the value of the procedure is seriously questioned. In a 1989 article for Redbook magazine, Dr. Spock retracted his position on circumcision, saying, "circumcision of males is traumatic, painful, and of questionable value."
Two years later, while speaking at the International Symposium on Circumcision, (after receiving their Human Rights Award) Spock said, "My own preference, if I had the good fortune to have another son, would be to leave his little penis alone."
Also for many years, the medical community believed that having babies sleep on their stomachs would prevent them from choking if they were to spit up or vomit.
In the 1990s, evidence was discovered proving that babies who sleep on their stomachs have a significantly higher risk of dying from SIDS - Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.
Some urban legends about Dr. Spock stated that Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry named the Enterprise's stoic Vulcan science officer Mr. Spock after him, and that one of Dr. Spock's sons committed suicide. Neither of these urban legends are true.
Roddenberry had never heard of Dr. Benjamin Spock when he chose the name of his beloved character. He simply wanted a one-syllable name for the Vulcan scientist that sounded strong and implied strength.
In the case of the suicide urban legend, it was Dr. Spock's grandson who had committed suicide at the age of 22, after a long battle with schizophrenia. Conservatives tried to exploit this tragedy as a means of debunking Spock's child rearing methods.
Dr. Benjamin Spock died in 1998 at the age of 94. A new English language edition of Dr. Spock's Baby & Child Care geared toward readers in India was released in 2013.
Some of Spock's other memorable books include A Baby's First Year (1954), Caring for Your Disabled Child (1965), Decent and Indecent (1970), Raising Children in a Difficult Time (1974), and Spock on Spock: a Memoir of Growing Up With the Century (1989).
Quote Of The Day
“I really learned it all from mothers.” - Dr. Benjamin Spock
Today's video features a 1982 interview with the late, great Dr. Benjamin Spock. Enjoy!