How Ben Spock became Dr. Spock

November 1, 2009

The world's best-known pediatrician, by a country mile, is still Benjamin Spock, MD, the author of The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care.

The world's best-known pediatrician, by a country mile, is still Benjamin Spock, MD, the author of The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. The book, an all-time bestseller, changed the face of parenting.

Benjamin McLane Spock was born in 1903 in New Haven, Conn., to a strict mother and a distant father. Spock's mother Mildred, a believer in cold air, made him attend an open-air school and keep the windows open and the heat off all winter. For lack of any better advice, his mother (and others) thought a freezing child was a healthy child.

He married Jane Cheney while attending Yale and switched concentrations from English to medicine. The honeymooners soon moved to New York, with Spock transferring to Columbia. The former C student came in first in his class.

While there, Spock started learning about psychiatry from disciples of Sigmund Freud, MD. He was interested in pediatrics and psychiatry. But no one had ever seemed to try to combine the two and consider what went on in the mind of a child. Spock's customized study program made him the first child psychiatry specialist in the world.

As a new pediatrician, Spock struggled to keep his bills paid during the Great Depression. He made house calls, took phone calls, and taught. When a publisher asked him to write a child care manual, though, Spock took a small royalty and no advance so that the book could be sold for a mere quarter.

The book's conversational tone was almost accidental: Spock dictated it to Jane, who was the one who knew how to type. He worked his Freudian studies into the text, couched in plain language. He was enlisted in the Naval Reserve, so had to dictate the last chapters over the phone to Jane.

The disguised psychiatric wisdom, the humorous advice, and the vast scope of the book all clicked with its intended audience. Parents had an on-call pediatrician in book form. To paraphrase his famous introduction, when it came to child care, Spock knew more than he thought he knew.