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by Anne Mollegen Smith, THURSDAY, September 4, 2008
LONG BEFORE PUBLICATION of his 1946 book, Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, the shy and lanky Benjamin Spock, 6'4" tall, won his first fame as an oarsman at Yale University. He rowed "seven seat" in the eight-man heavyweight varsity crew that won a gold medal for the U.S. at the 1924 Paris Olympics, setting a world record of 5:51 on the 2000-meter course on the Seine.
An English major at Yale, Spock earned an M.D. from Columbia University in 1929. While practicing pediatrics in New York's Hell's Kitchen slums, he finished a second residency in psychiatry and then taught pediatrics at Cornell Medical College. From 1944 to 1946, he served as a medical officer in the Navy but made time to finish his soon-to-be-bestselling book. It won him national fame as it outsold all other books except Shakespeare and the Bible until 1976—when it zoomed past Shakespeare.
Empowering Parents. Dr. Spock broke the "spare the rod, spoil the child" authoritarian mold of the dictatorial doctor who set the household schedule, warned parents against being too affectionate or indulgent, and directed the baby's health by prescribing an individually mixed "formula" thought to be superior to mother's milk. Instead, his book told mothers "you know more than you think you do." He told fathers "you can be a warm father and a real man at the same time." He wrote for popular magazines such as the Ladies Home Journal, Redbook, and Parade, reaching millions of American families long after he retired his pediatric practice in 1967.
He became controversial for demonstrating against the Viet Nam war and the dangers of nuclear technology, marching side by side with Baby Boom protesters raised by the book, his book—Baby and Child Care. Conservatives like Norman Vincent Peale (who wrote The Power of Positive Thinking) and Vice-President Spiro Agnew derided Spock as a "baby doctor" and blamed his "permissive" childrearing for the unruly Sixties generation. Undaunted, in books, broadcasts, and speeches, Dr. Spock went on offering advice on parenting and politics with the vitality fueled by lifelong habits of vigorous walking and rowing. Well into his eighties, he kept a scull on the lake near his Arkansas home where he liked to row six miles a day. When he died in 1998 a few months short of his 95th birthday, that first book—now called Dr. Spock's Baby and Child Care—was going into its seventh edition.
Anne Mollegen Smith, a former managing editor and editor in chief of Redbook, worked with columnist Dr. Spock between 1978 and 1983.
Watch for new stories every Thursday in Live & Learn, NRTA's publication for the AARP educator community: Celebrating learning as a creative lifestyle.
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