Columbia University Medical Center

P&S History: Benjamin Spock, MD’29—The World’s Pediatrician

“Never kiss your child. Never hold it in your lap. Never rock its carriage.” This parenting advice, from a 1928 guide by psychologist John Watson, is extreme but reflected the authoritarianism that was the norm in parenting guides at the time.

Then came Dr. Spock.

For many decades, Benjamin Spock, MD, a 1929 graduate of Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, was the nation’s most famous pediatrician after the publication of his book, “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care,” in 1946. March 15 marks the 20th anniversary of his death.

Spock’s book immediately revolutionized child care in America and eventually sold 50 million copies around the world.

“In the pre-Spock era children were zealously fed every four hours, put to bed early, and kept on a tight schedule,” said pediatrician Joseph Warshaw, MD, in the Yale Alumni Magazine. After Spock, parents became more relaxed, following signals from the child. “This approach became and has remained the conventional wisdom. Mothers (and fathers) were permitted to do what came naturally—using common sense and trusting their instincts.”

T. Berry Brazelton, MD’43, another P&S alumnus and noted pediatrician-author, said of Spock, in the New York Times: “He opened the whole area of empowered parenting. He gave parents choices and encouraged them to think things out for themselves.”

Psychoanalysis and child-rearing

After earning his B.A. degree at Yale in 1925, Spock started medical school there but transferred to P&S after two years. He interned at Presbyterian Hospital and later opened a private practice in pediatrics in New York City in 1933.

Presbyterian Hospital House Staff, 1930. Dr. Spock is in the second row from the front, eighth from the left.

Spock also began training part time at the New York Psychoanalytic Institute and thought his psychoanalytic training could help him answer the child-rearing questions posed to him by worried parents. Spock found most existing literature on child-rearing to be “condescending, scolding or intimidating,” and during World War II, while serving in the Navy as a psychiatrist, he began writing a child-care book that would combine good pediatrics with good child psychology.

The book hit the shelves in 1946, selling for 25 cents to make it accessible to mothers. It sold 500,000 copies in its first six months and remained a best-seller for decades.

Spock’s book coached postwar parents to trust their own common sense: “What good mothers and fathers instinctively feel like doing for their babies is usually best,” he wrote.

“Spock babies”

“The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” came out just in time for the postwar baby boom. Spock quickly became a household name and is frequently credited with helping to raise a generation of “Spock babies” in the postwar period. In the 1960s and 1970s, Spock became an antiwar activist, and some blamed his book for creating a generation of self-indulgent young people. But Spock was proud of the babies he “raised” who protested alongside him: “Maybe my book helped a generation not to be intimidated by adulthood. When I was young, I was always made to assume that I was wrong. Now young people think they might be right and stand up to authority.”

The first edition of “The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care” by Dr. Spock

In 1990, Life magazine named Spock one of the 100 most important people of the 20th century. Two years later, he received the Peace Abbey Courage of Conscience Award at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library for his lifelong commitment to disarmament and peaceable child-rearing. The New York Times wrote about his work, “Babies do not arrive with owner’s manuals, but for three generations of American parents, the next best thing was ‘Baby and Child Care.’”

Spock was 94 years old when he died on March 15, 1998. Shortly after his death, a symposium at P&S celebrated the legacy of “The Spock Revolution.” P&S Dean Herbert Pardes posthumously presented Dr. Spock the Dean’s Award for Distinguished Service.

Watch Dr. Spock talk with Jacqueline Kennedy during the 1960 Kennedy for President campaign.