Dr Spock: Rower and Radical

Dr Benjamin McLane Spock (1903 – 1998) pictured for a magazine cover in 1966. One of the most influential figures of the 20th century, Spock was a paediatric science pioneer and best-selling author of books on child rearing, a peace, anti-nuclear and civil rights activist, a 1972 Presidential candidate and a 1924 Olympic rowing gold medalist.

8 June 2021

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch on the man who, for better or worse, Spock-marked us all.

In 1966, the host of a popular American television chat show, Merv Griffin, introduced a guest by saying:

As is well-known, George Washington is the father of our country, but there is a man here who comes in a close second… The top selling book in the world is the Bible, the second best seller belongs to Dr Spock.

Cue the entrance of a tall, kindly and distinguished looking bespectacled man in an immaculate three-piece suit.

Of course, Dr Spock needed no introduction, he was one of the most famous and trusted men in the United States and he had effectively raised many of those who were watching that TV show through the wide-ranging influence of his 1946 book, The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care. It served as the definitive child-rearing manual for millions of American parents in the “baby boom” that followed the end of the Second World War. Spock was one of the few paediatricians also trained in psychoanalysis and he subtly put Freudian concepts into the American middle-class mind.

Conventional paediatric wisdom before Spock must have had an immeasurable detrimental effect on many generations. The standard text on child rearing since the late 1920s had advised distant and rigid parenting, emphasising unyielding feeding and sleeping schedules for infants and babies and discouraging open displays of affection: “Never hug or kiss (your children), never let them sit in your lap. If you must, kiss them once on the forehead when they say goodnight. Shake hands with them in the morning.”

Spock was one of the first people to talk about listening to children, famously telling parents, “Trust yourself, you know more than you think you do.” Spock heldthat his book was written “…to be supportive of parents rather than to scold them. Instead of just telling a parent what to do, I usually tried to explain what children are like at different stages of development, what their drives are, so that the parent would know what to expect and could act on his own knowledge.”

Spock in his Yale “letter sweater” in 1924. His C+ average on graduation (“a gentleman’s C”) was then good enough to go on to Yale Medical College and later Columbia. In later life, his sons rebelled by going to Harvard.

Spock was an unlikely revolutionary. For two-thirds of his life, he was a card-carrying member of America’s “Eastern Establishment”, the people and institutions in the north-eastern U.S. that have traditionally had great economic and political power. His baby book, published when he was 43, was arguably his first radical act but, in his 60s, he went down a path that resulted in him becoming a political activist that the U.S. Government strove to have indicted for conspiracy. Towards the end of his long life, Spock became an advocate for many so-called “new age” ideas including veganism and meditation.

If the young Benjamin McLane Spock was a fictional character, his creator would be criticised for penning such a lazy Ivy League stereotype. Spock was born just down the road from Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1903, the oldest of six children of a grave father, corporate lawyer Benjamin Ives Spock, and an intimidating mother, Mildred. Like his father, young Spock attended the prestigious prep school, Phillips Academy Andover , and then Yale. At university, he initially studied literature and history, belonged to Scroll and Key (the secret society for future CIA Directors and Secretaries of State) and took up rowing. “I had an awfully good time at college,” he recalled years later.

Spock at “7” in the Yale crew that won the Olympic Eights in 1924. Picture: Tom Weil Collection.

Famously, Spock won Olympic Gold in the Yale eight at the 1924 Paris Olympics. It was a life-enhancing win for the 21-year-old Benjamin, but it was one that, for several reasons, very nearly did not happen.

Despite reaching his height of 6 foot 4 inches at the age of 12, Spock was a timid child who was “unable to stand up to tough boys, scared of spiders, scared of Italians.” A very strict upbringing by a loving but strange and redoubtable mother was probably responsible for this. Her peculiar ideas included making her children sleep outside on the porch all year round. Spock later recalled that when he entered Yale in 1921:

I felt very unsure of myself. I felt unpopular and unable to compete with other boys. I felt like a sissy, a mother’s boy, and I was timid. I was afraid they might bully me and that I would not be able to do the things they were able to do.

Spock’s confidence was not helped by his mother making him live and eat lunch at home during his freshman year.

Initially, Spock concentrated on the high jump, his high school sport, but he showed little improvement. However, despite his skinny frame, Spock’s height caught the attention of the captain of Yale’s rowing team, James Stillman Rockefeller, he of the famously wealthy family. When Spock told Rockefeller that his sport was high jumping, the response was “Why don’t you go out for a man’s sport?” In The Olympians, Roy Tomizawa, recorded Spock’s reaction:

To Spock, who yearned to be seen as a man’s man, these were the words that struck his soul. To be seen as having potential in one of the most respected and manly of sports at the time – rowing – was a revelation. “I was elated. The captain of the crew thought that I might be crew material! That had never occurred to me.” 

1989 interview with Spock and his second wife, Mary Morgan, by Henry Allen for the Washington Post quotes Spock as adding, “I’d known since reading Stover at Yale in boyhood that rowing was a noble and glorious sport.”

There was, however, still much work to be done. Tomizawa again:

As Spock described, (Yale’s rowing) technique was outdated. “You’d lie way, way back to get the length of the stroke and pull the oar up almost to your chin and shove it away.” But during Spock’s freshman year, the rowing committee at Yale decided it was time to change things up, so they hired a coach out of Washington named Ed Leader, who transformed the stroke and the team.

Leader required his rowers to be at least six-feet tall and have almost no lay-back. This suited Spock and his crew mates and, in 1923, his Junior Varsity boat was victorious in the Harvard – Yale Race.

Ed Leader was responsible for the Yale crew getting to – and winning at – the Paris Olympics. He stayed on as coach for the next twenty years.

In 2011, Göran R Buckhorn wrote a six-part piece for HTBS on a letter that he discovered in the archives of the National Rowing Foundation’s National Rowing Hall of Fame, then at Mystic Seaport, Mystic, Connecticut. The letter, written in 1956, was from the “7” man in the Yale Olympic eight of 1924 (Spock) to the “7” man in the Yale Olympic eight of 1956 (Richard “Rusty” Wailes). Spock recounted how close Yale had been to not enter a crew in the 1924 Olympics:

The actual Olympic races were scheduled from July 15th to July 17th on the Seine in Paris and the Olympic trials in (the US) were scheduled for June 13th and 14th. With the (Yale v Harvard) race on Friday, June 20th, and the Poughkeepsie race on Saturday, June 21st, most college crews decided not to try for the Olympics…

On May 5th in the Blackwell Cup at Derby, we beat Pennsylvania and Columbia quite easily. On May 17th at Princeton in the Carnegie Cup we beat Princeton and Cornell quite easily. Thereafter there was a good deal of newspaper publicity urging on Yale the authorities that we try out for the Olympics…

On Sunday, June 1st… we met with the Rowing Committee and individually and collectively said we wanted to try for the Olympics. That gave us less than two weeks and of that two-week period we had examinations on nine days. 

One of the complications was that if we should win the (Olympic trials) we could not go abroad with the Olympic team because the Harvard (v Yale) race was after the American boat sailed, so on Monday, June 2nd, the Yale Rowing Committee raised $10,000 in five minutes to send us abroad, should we win, and first-class accommodations were arranged for us on the (passenger liner) “Homeric”, sailing Saturday, the 21st, at noon, less than twenty-four hours after the Harvard race. 

As I remember, our training, we had a time trial over what we guessed was the Olympic distance every day in the morning and then took a long paddle in the afternoon. During this period we never paddled at less than 24.

Spock in action, 1924.

Yale qualified as the U.S. representative for the Olympic eights by 4/5th of a second and, a week later, beat Harvard by nearly four lengths.

Previously, there had been one final problem for Spock’s international rowing ambitions – he was not in the Yale crew aiming for Paris. However, a 2005 letter written by John Cooke, “3” in Yale’s 1956 Olympic crew, explained: 

(Spock) was the last man to make the ’24 boat, when T.F. Davis Haines (called Fred by friends – or Tom) fell shortly before the Olympic trials and bruised his ass. Obviously, he could not sit in the boat and Spock was substituted. Haines had been solidly in the 7-seat for three years! What a shame he missed out – not to take anything away from Spock.

Spock must have felt like kissing Haines’ bruised ass.

The 1989 Henry Allen interview records that the glamorous Hollywood star, Gloria Swanson, was also on board the RMS Homeric with the Yale crew bound for Paris. The shy and unworldly Spock was introduced to her by the team manager as “Big Ben”. Swanson sized him up. “Big Ben,” she said, “but no alarm”. Twenty-six years later, she delivered a better line about size in Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard”: “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small”. 

Come the Olympic Regatta, Yale established what was then a new Olympic record, 5:51, in their only heat, rowing part of the race at 29. The competition at the Olympics proved little challenge for Yale and in the final, they outclassed Canada, Italy and Britain to win Gold. They beat second-placed Canada by 16 seconds in a time of 6.33, rowing into a headwind. Spock later wrote: “The race itself was an anticlimax. We won by, I think, three-and-a-half boat lengths. You’re not meant to win a race that short by as much as a boat length.”

In My Harvard, My Yale (1982), Spock wrote:

I enjoyed the fruits of my (Olympic) success. Yet I felt secret embarrassment at how grimly I’d worked for them, not for God, for country or for Yale at all, but for release from my self-image as a mother’s boy. The way it happened though, I was able to close the ledger of my undergraduate years quite cheerfully, thanks really to Ed Leader’s new stroke, and to turn my mind to medical school and the outside world.  

A 1924 Olympic Gold Medal.

In 1972, Spock talked to the New York Times about the forces that made him:

I was born a Republican and, right up through Yale, I probably didn’t even know a Democrat… I didn’t become a rebel until I was in my 60s. But I’ve always been by temperament a do‐gooder. I’ve always had a strong New England conscience, which has often been unduly severe but which gave me a sense of duty… 

I never succeeded in rebelling as an adolescent. Later, when I was psychoanalysed, I realised I had a rebellious feeling toward my father. But my behaviour was very conventional. My clothes were always exactly right. My friends were upper‐class WASPs. I was a snob, and I still have trouble overcoming that characteristic. Yet, I always clung to the Yankee belief in the value of the individual and I retained a streak of “cussed New England independence” in me.

Spock first moved into the political limelight in 1962, warning of the possible hazards posed to children and nursing mothers by atmospheric nuclear testing. Before then, he was not actively political and his views were conventionally liberal. Initially he had adopted his father’s Republican views, but in 1933 he became impressed with Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “New Deal”. He supported Kennedy when he became President (1961 – 1963) but was soon angered by JFK’s resumption of nuclear testing in the atmosphere. He then supported the Johnson Presidency (1963 – 1969) until the escalation of U.S. military involvement in Vietnam.

Spock became committed to political activism with all its concomitant controversy, opposing nuclear weapons, leading anti-Vietnam War campaigns and supporting civil rights. Time magazine mockingly called the anti-war baby doctor, “The Great Pacifier’’ (it’s a good joke but it only works in the U.S. as in Britain a pacifier is called a “dummy”).

Dr Spock and Dr Martin Luther King march against the Vietnam War, New York City, 1967.

Spock became a regular if unlikely figure at demonstrations, Dwight Gardner noting that, “his genially noble bearing and his familiar blue Brooks Brothers suits bringing a measure of moral gravity to hundreds of protests”. He also became the target of attacks from conservatives, notably Vice-President Spiro Agnew. 

Agnew declared the counterculture and the permissive society were the fault of the college students of the 1960s who were “raised on Spock”. After Agnew resigned from office in 1973 following allegations of criminal conspiracy, bribery, extortion and tax fraud, Spock was quoted as saying, “I was always glad to say that no one could accuse me of raising Spiro Agnew.” He should have added that he was not responsible for how Agnew’s compatriot on the moral high ground and spokesman for the “silent majority”, Richard Nixon, turned out either.

Spock was arrested more than once while demonstrating, something that he found “liberating”. He also noted that the clergymen who were frequently taken into custody with him enjoyed the experience of being “bad boys”. However, things got more serious in 1968 when he was tried for promoting nonviolent military draft resistance and sentenced to two years in prison. The decision was overturned on a technicality on appeal. To some, the U.S. government’s indictment of the baby doctor seemed like prosecuting Santa Claus. However, others now refused to buy his book and there was a fifty percent drop in sales in 1968.

Spock addressing an anti-draft rally in Boston in 1968.

By the end of the 1960s, many Americans felt contempt for both the established parties, the Democrats and the Republicans, and third parties were attractive. One, The People’s Party, a loose coalition made up of anti-war hippies, labour unions and black civil rights activists, nominated Spock to run for President in 1972. It called for free medical care, the legalisation of abortion and marijuana, a guaranteed minimum income for families and the immediate withdrawal of all American troops from foreign countries.

Ultimately, Spock’s name went on the ballot in just 10 states, and he received only 80,000 votes, fewer than the totals for the socialists or the segregationists. It seemed that, while many Americans were willing to trust Dr Spock with their children, they were not willing to trust him with their country.

The New York Times followed Spock on his 1972 Presidential Campaign trail. The piece began with the journalist observing a strike by African American garbage collectors in a small Southern town and asking the rhetorical question: 

But who is that incongruous figure… a very tall, distinguished‐looking white man, wearing a fine blue suit with a vest, a tie, a pocket handkerchief and a gold watch chain? Who is this gentleman with thinning white hair and horn rimmed glasses, chanting, “Black and white together” with such obvious pleasure? Who is this patrician, suntanned and fit, who clearly doesn’t belong in the Louisiana bayous?

Of his chances of becoming the 38th President, Spock was honest:

Maybe I’m too conservative and my upbringing shows. I honestly don’t expect to be elected President. If I can move 10 percent of the people in an audience that I speak to, I’m satisfied.

Speaking on working with the dissident groups that made up the People’s Party, Spock remained frank:

Of course, I was put off by these young people at first… Being a very neat dresser myself, I resented and misunderstood their long hair and messy clothes and unwashed bodies. Temperamentally, I found myself antagonised by many aspects of the hippie way of life. But… if they could extend their friendship to me, I could at least make a conscious effort to overcome my prejudices toward them. I didn’t come by it naturally….

Spock was probably the only person over 30 that many of the young trusted, and certainly the only one in a Brooks Brothers suit.

Delegates to The People’s Party Convention in Arizona in 1972 including Gore Vidal (left) and Spock (centre).

In later life, Spock was accused of the double crime of being the architect of the permissive society and then of trying, too late, to reverse himself. These were charges that he denied. Naturally, each edition of a book published over fifty years had to take account of societal changes and, in his later years, Spock acknowledged that he had not been an ideal husband or a perfect father to his two sons. However, he held that some hated him for his political activism, not for his child psychology, and others, many of whom had not actually read his book, had simply misunderstood his basic philosophy.

I didn’t want to encourage permissiveness, but rather to relax rigidity…

A lot of Americans still think that my advice is to let children do anything, that it’s all right to let them act uncooperatively or impolitely… Right from the start, the book said give your children firm, clear leadership, ask them for politeness and cooperation. Respect your children, but ask them for respect also. There was nothing in it about giving children anything they want.

Following a fifty-year break from rowing after his Olympic win, Spock took up sculling in 1978 at the age of 75. Well into his eighties, he kept a boat on the lake near his Arkansas home where he liked to scull six miles a day. )

Although Spock was more of a traditional moralist than most people assumed, he was capable of radical thought right up to the end. Just months before his death, he advocated a vegan diet for children over the age of two.

For most of us, winning an Olympic Gold medal would be the pinnacle of our lifetime achievements. For Ben Spock, it was simply the start. Anyone who attempts radical reform of something as personal and ubiquitous as bringing up children will attract controversy. If that person then challenges those in power over many of their tightly held beliefs and practices, opinions will be further polarised. Time magazine’s obituary of Spock summarised: “He was one of the most famous and controversial figures of his century. He single handedly changed the way parents raise their children.”

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