Obituary: Dr Benjamin Spock
Tuesday 17 March 1998
So what was Benjamin Spock? If we separate Spock the man, Spock the paediatrician and Spock the politician, we lose sight of a whole that was infinitely greater than the sum of those parts.
His lifetime spanned every decade of this century. Born in 1903, the young Ben had a strict and mildly eccentric "bluestocking" mother and a stern, distant father who was full of rectitude and empty of joy. Shy, lanky and much-teased, Spock grew up God- and father-fearing and full of inner uncertainties. His family fitted into a neighbourhood and society crisscrossed with rigid barriers of race, sex and religion; wealth, status and generation. The same barriers that kept everyone in an ascribed place also ensured a place for each, producing what Spock once described as "a paradox of authoritarian security". Sixty years later he could still remember his amazement when his 6ft 4in frame gave him success as a Yale oarsman and took him to the 1924 Olympics and the beginnings of self-esteem.
It was a summer job in a camp for handicapped children that turned Spock towards medicine and it was his own childhood experiences combined with theirs that ensured that the conventional symptom-based medicine of the time would not satisfy him. While America laboured through the Depression, Ben Spock laboured through medical school, married, read Freud, added psychiatry to specialisation in paediatrics - an unheard-of combination - and underwent a personal psychoanalysis.
By the time Dr Spock set up his Manhattan paediatric practice in the Thirties, he had decided that children were people and determined to treat them as such. Parents were astounded to find the doctor in a lounge suit instead of an alarming white coat and his waiting room full of toys. They were even more taken aback when he insisted on talking to their children about feelings, as well as to them about those children's bowels.
The Spock of the Forties was no peacenik; indeed the book that was to change everything for parents and children was delayed by his stint as a naval psychiatrist ("I believed in that war, you see"). He was not a chauvinist or a radical either. He was a children's doctor. He assumed the continuation of the secure moral values of the past, but believed that a society shaken up by war could reform itself without the unfeeling authoritarianism which had distorted his own childhood development and which he believed to be an unnecessary burden on family life for everyone.
He wanted to oust the combative spectre of Original Sin so that parents could enjoy their children: "Your baby isn't a schemer. [He] is a reasonable, friendly human being. If you treat him nicely, he won't take advantage of you." And he wanted to offer parents who now found themselves isolated from traditional family support systems a new security of belief in themselves: "You know more than you think you do," the book began.
The Common Sense Book of Baby and Childcare was published in 1946 and sold three quarters of a million copies in the first year - an amazing number for that time and topic. Spock now divided his time between child development research and parent education, while his message spread through his country and through the world. The way we think about and rear children has never been the same again nor ever will be. So all- pervasive did his work become that even those who have never read one of the 50 million copies of the book have been indirectly influenced by what started inside its covers and became an integral part of Western culture.
So why did Benjamin Spock not stay with the baby-guru role and keep away from politics? As always, with him, the simple answer was "children's well-being".
During the Fifties Spock the children's doctor saw a rapid increase in childhood leukaemias and a rise in Strontium 90 in bones. Spock the man spoke up against the nuclear testing that was causing this tragic trend and Spock the politician was born of the discovery that a man who might carry "the mother's vote" was very, very welcome in Washington. "Dr Spock is for my husband and I am for Dr Spock," lisped Jacqueline Kennedy during the 1960 presidential campaign.
But Kennedy managed to control neither nuclear testing nor the Vietnam war and by 1962 Spock was Chairman of Sane (the National Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy). The Johnson campaign of 1964 brought Spock to angry disillusionment. Johnson obtained his support with specific guarantees to halt nuclear testing if he was elected. Immediately after his election he ordered testing to be resumed. One can still hear Spock the good and moral man through Spock the political innocent who said, "It was impossible for me not to react with extreme indignation."
His political innocence was over. The Vietnam war, which he regarded as "one of the dirtiest wars that has ever been fought", was escalating. Unemployment and inflation were spiralling. He saw poverty and social injustice everywhere and only the mothers and young people who marched with him in thousands seemed to care: "Two-thirds of Americans would give up the Bill of Rights in order to justify throwing young protesters in jail."
Spock was a leading figure in the campaign against the Vietnam war throughout the Sixties and in 1968 was indicted for encouraging young Americans to burn their draft cards. He was convicted and, though the Appeal Court saved him from serving his prison sentence, "The whole experience radicalised me. I realised that the United States had always been as imperialist as it dared to be."
In 1970 he published a book called Decent and Indecent: our personal and political behaviour in which he tried to communicate his deep concern for the personal materialism and political corruption he saw all around him. Eventually he was to help to found the People's Party and to run, halfheartedly, for President in 1972.
In the meantime, though, his enormous influence over millions of young Americans, many of them "Spock babies" grown up, made him a no-holds-barred target for those he saw as oppressors: supporters of Johnson - "the biggest bully of all time"; and Nixon - "an authoritarian man". There was scarcely an ill in a sick society for which he was not held responsible and even the new edition of Baby and Child Care, published in the same year that he faced imprisonment, was turned against him. In this new edition, Spock sought to remind people that children need to learn from parents the very qualities he saw diminishing in society: a sense of values; of service rather than self-gratification; of sensitivity to others as well as to self.
Perhaps the message was too painful for parents; certainly it was untimely, since home and children were unfashionable topics that risked the ire of a women's movement that had not yet begun to come to terms with maternity. "I hope you realise that you are a major oppressor of women, in the company of Sigmund Freud," thundered Gloria Steinem.
Spock later described the Seventies as "a difficult time for me". Countless sensational articles appeared, accusing him of the double crime of having been the architect of the "permissive society" and now of trying, too late, to reverse himself. For the first time, sales of the book plummeted. In 1974 a magazine called the Red Book published a run-of-the-mill article he wrote in a form so sensational it seemed like an attempt at character assassination. In 1975 nearly half a century's marriage ended in divorce. In 1976 he married again and published yet another edition of the book, freed of sexism and carefully referring to babies as "they" ("It makes them sound a bit like a crowd though," he commented regretfully).
Although Spock accepted the charge of sexism in his earlier writing, he never truly felt himself to be a chauvinist, nor could anyone who knew him charge him with being so. As always, his attitudes to wider social issues, including feminism, were shaped by his concern for children: "Of course women as people have as much right to careers as people who are men. That simply emphasises the obvious fact that men have as much responsibility as their wives in who is going to take care of the children."
Spock the man was still first and foremost Dr Spock the paediatrician and it was his concern for the child who must be father (or mother) to the man (or woman) which had always shaped his political activity - and did so until his death. He explained his underlying concerns in an interview with the Observer in 1969 far better than anyone can do it for him:
We live in a disenchanted, disillusioned age - not about things but about human beings . . . I believe that Man's disillusionment is based on a misunderstanding of his nature . . . He is idealistic in his aspirations. His relationships are primarily spiritual.
His capacity for abstract reasoning has enabled him to discover much of the meaning of the universe. He has invented fantastic machines. He has created beauty in all the arts. All this has been made possible by the aspirations kindled in him in early childhood by his adoration of his parents. Whether or not a man has religious faith, he can believe in the power of love and in Man's potentialities for good, if he understands the spiritual development of the child.
Benjamin Spock was still fighting irrepressibly for children in 1988, at the age of 85, when I was privileged to share a platform with him and Berry T. Brazelton, America's leading academic and favourite television paediatrician. Hundreds of Boston parents expected practical advice on combining childcare with their jobs, but our preliminary conversations were all about society's failure to give parenting the status and economic priority it deserves. Our convener was becoming desperate: "Dr Spock, can't you say something about the need for more nursery schools?" she begged.
"No," replied Spock firmly. "I'm entirely convinced that all our troubles grow out of this materialist, capitalist society and it's no good tinkering with that by saying we need more nursery schools." Looking at her appalled face, he roared with laughter and added: "The whole damned political and economic system must be changed. That's what I'm going to say and I bet that's what Penny's going to say too."
Next morning, as we waited to enter the lecture hall, she tried one last appeal: "People, this meeting is supposed to be about babies. Can't you be a bit less political?"
"Babies are political," Benjamin Spock replied. "Babies are what politics is all about."
Benjamin McLane Spock, paediatrician: born New Haven, Connecticut 2 May 1903; Professor of Child Development, University of Pittsburgh 1951- 55; Professor of Child Development, Western Reserve University 1955-67; married 1927 Jane Cheney (two sons; marriage dissolved 1975), 1976 Mary Morgan (one stepdaughter); died San Diego, California 15 March 1998.
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