Baby Formula

I f you’re a parent of a certain age, chances are you know the name Dr. Spock. Not to be confused with Mr. Spock of Star Trek fame, Dr. Benjamin Spock grew up in New Haven, attended Yale and became a household name as the preeminent parenting expert of the 20th century.

Born on May 2, 1903, Spock grew up at 165 Cold Spring Street. His father, Benjamin Ives Spock, was an attorney for the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad. His mother, Mildred Louise Stoughton Spock, “never had a moment’s doubt” about her own parenting of her six children, Spock wrote in his 1985 autobiography, Spock on Spock: A Memoir of Growing Up With the Century. Benjamin Spock was her oldest living child, and he credited his love of babies in part to his experience helping to raise his brother Bob, nine years younger.

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Spock’s education took him from Worthington Hooker School to an experimental “open-air” school on Orange Street, which consisted of “a large wooden platform, a tent, twenty desks, and twenty thick felt bags to sit in,” he recalled in his memoir. From there, the future pediatrician-psychiatrist spent a year at Hopkins Grammar School, to which he sometimes traveled by roller skates, shortcutting through the Woolsey Hall rotunda. But Hopkins and Spock weren’t a great fit. For one thing, he recalled, the older, “rougher” boys enjoyed spending recess tossing the smaller boys from a blanket which eight of them held around the edges. He was happy to find his way across town to Hamden Hall, where he played soccer and baseball.

After finishing his secondary education at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, Spock returned to New Haven for college at Yale, where, at six feet and four inches tall, he found the crew team. By junior year, he was rowing varsity. In 1924, Yale’s crew team won the Olympic trials, besting another boat by just a few feet, and won a berth at the Paris Olympics. In the final race there, they beat their closest opponent—Canada—by more than three boat lengths and took home gold medals.

But as impressive as his rowing career may have been, what made “Dr. Spock” a household name was his career in medicine. In 1929, he earned his medical degree, starting at Yale and finishing at Columbia because he and his new wife, Jane Davenport Cheney, wanted to live in New York. At the time, “New Haven seemed dull, conventional, too full of my family’s friends,” he wrote. While doing his pediatric residency in the early 1930s, it occurred to him that he should also train in psychiatry. It was that combination of training that led an editor from Pocket Books to approach him about writing a child care manual.

Published in 1945, the first edition of The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care caught the wave of the postwar Baby Boom and sold three-quarters of a million copies. At the time of Spock’s death, in 1998, The New York Times reported the book had sold nearly 50 million copies and been translated into 42 languages. It is still in print today.

Much of the popularity of Baby and Child Care had to do with Spock’s folksy attitude toward parenting. “Don’t take too seriously all that the neighbors say. Don’t be overawed by what the experts say. Don’t be afraid to trust your own common sense,” he wrote in the book’s opening pages. That advice was a far cry from the conventional wisdom of the time that put babies on strict sleeping and feeding schedules and discouraged physical affection. Spock believed his book succeeded because “it was cheap, it was complete, and it dealt with both the psychological and the physical sides of child care. But most important by far was that I wrote the book with the resolve not to scare parents, or boss them around, or talk down to them.” In 1953, the book got a boost from Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, who built an I Love Lucy episode around it.

But public opinion wasn’t always so kind. Spock gained a reputation of being “permissive” and coddling. He took exception to that characterization. “I’ve always urged parents to ask for cooperation and politeness (and to render it to children as well),” he wrote. The pediatrician’s reputation was further impacted by his involvement in the Civil Rights movement and Vietnam anti-war and anti-nuclear demonstrations, his multiple arrests for civil disobedience and his 1972 campaign for president on the left-wing People’s Party ticket. To Spock himself those actions were part of his larger mission. “Just as it was unusual but not odd to combine pediatrics with psychiatry, so there was nothing quixotic about a pediatrician engaging in political activism because he believed ‘war is not healthy for babies or other living things’ [and] neither is racism,” explained Yale’s former chaplain, the activist William Sloane Coffin, Jr., in a eulogy at Spock’s funeral.

As the decades passed, Spock continued to modify his advice—in later editions, with the help of Dr. Michael B. Rothenberg and then Dr. Robert Needlman—as well as his views on women, responding to feminist critiques of the book by making revisions to the 1976 edition “to eliminate the sexist biases of the sort that help to create and perpetuate discrimination against girls and women,” the Times reported.

Following Spock’s death, in the summer of 1998, Yale Alumni Magazine published several tributes from the Yale community. “It is easy to underestimate the impact of Spock’s work,” Dr. Joseph Warshaw of the Yale School of Medicine told the magazine, “because so much of his notion of baby and child care has been incorporated into the conventional wisdom of our general approach to child-rearing.” The magazine noted it was breaking with protocol in publishing tributes to a distinguished alumnus who hadn’t later served the university as a faculty member or administrator. It may have been doing penance for an earlier decision in 1968, when a six-page article on Spock was pulled just before press time at the behest of Yale president Kingman Brewster, because both Spock and Coffin were on trial for “conspiring to encourage draft resistance,” the Yale Daily News reported at the time. The magazine’s editor resigned in protest. Spock was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison; the conviction was overturned on appeal the following year.

It’s hard to imagine that a book first published in 1946 could remain relevant today, but a 2011 paperback copy of the 9th edition of Dr. Spock’s Baby and Child Care is on the shelves at Ives Main Library in New Haven. The book, updated to reflect today’s medical understanding, is sprinkled with pull-quotes labeled “Dr. Spock Comments.” In the chapter titled “What Children Need,” the doctor writes,

Love and enjoy your children for what they are, for what they look like, for what they do, and forget about the qualities that they don’t have. I don’t give you this advice just for sentimental reasons. There’s a very important practical point here. The children who are appreciated for what they are, even if they are homely, or clumsy, or slow, will grow up with confidence in themselves and be happy. They will have a spirit that will make the best of all the capacities that they do have, and of all the opportunities that come their way.

The wording may sound a bit old-fashioned. But the advice is as true today as it was back when a little-known doctor from New Haven first wrote it.

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image, photographed by Thomas R. Koeniges and sourced from the Manuscripts and Archives collections of the Yale University Library, features Benjamin Spock holding a baby circa 1968.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg's associate editor. She's also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Her perfect New Haven day would involve lots of sunshine, a West Rock hike, a concert on the green and a coffee milkshake.

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