Benjamin Spock, the doctor who sold more books than just about anybody else

November 15, 2021 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: books, journalism, writers, writing.

The audience for his book was there, ready-made and hiding in plain sight.

It was just after World War II, a time when many men and some women thought motherhood came naturally. All women had to do was have a baby. After that,  they would know what to do.

A lot of women didn’t share those feelings. Having a baby was one thing. After that, what?

So Benjamin Spock, a pediatrician, wrote a book with the uninspiring title of The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. It became one of the top best-selling books ever published in America. It eventually sold more than 50 million copies and was translated into more than 40 languages.

Benjamin Spock was born in 1903 in New Haven, Connecticut, the first of six children of a prominent local family. He grew to be a handsome, six-foot-four-inch young man with great athletic ability. He was part of the Yale rowing team that won a gold medal in the 1924 Olympics. After graduation, he went to medical school and took special training in psychiatry. When he began his practice as a pediatrician, he started applying some of his psychiatric known to caring for his child patients.

His practice flourished in part because he was so good with both the children and their mothers. He didn’t mind playing with the children, and he set mothers at ease with his confidence and charm. He married Jane Cheney in 1929, and the couple remained together until their divorce in 1976.

Spock was dissatisfied with the hard-line, didactic tone of many of the child-rearing books available to mothers at that time. He believed that children should be treated affectionately but not over-indulged. Schedules should be set, but parents should remain flexible about enforcing them. Many of his ideas were later deliberately misinterpreted as “permissiveness” by his political opponents.

He began writing his book in the early 1940s as the world became engulfed in war, and in 1944, he joined the U.S. Navy and served as a medical officer on the West Coast.

The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care was published in 1946. It became an immediate best-seller with sales of more than 500,000 copies in the first year. It continued in its popularity through many editions and has influenced child-rearing practices for generations. Critics attacked the book saying that much of it was based on anecdotal evidence rather than solid research, but new and expectant mothers kept it handy and used it for daily reference when their children were young.

Spock became heavily involved in the anti-war movement in the 1960s and later in the anti-nuclear arms movements of the 1970s and 1980s. He was arrested numerous times. He was once charged and convicted of conspiring to help young men avoid the draft, even though he had never been in the same room with those he was supposed to have conspired with. His conviction was set aside by an appeals court.

Spock’s anti-war activism attracted a different set of critics, among them Norman Vincent Peale and Vice President Spiro Agnew, who attacked not only his political views but also his ideas about raising children. Those criticisms hurt the sales of his book, but it has continued to exercise a major influence on child-rearing practices.

Spock was a prolific writer of books and magazine articles throughout his life. Just before his death at the age of 94 in 1995, he finished editing a new edition of Baby and Child Care.


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