Spock's Baby

The famous doc nurtured Pittsburgh children.
Winter 2015

From our Winter 2002 issue. See all our past issues here.

Photo, 1969. Credit: Bettman, UPIHis Baby and Child Care sold more than 50 million copies; his soothing words on feeding schedules and toilet training reassured a whole generation of nervous babyboom parents; his name became a revered household word. Later, Benjamin Spock demonstrated against the Vietnam war, was jailed and convicted of “conspiracy to aid, abet, and counsel young men to avoid the draft” after a march at the Pentagon (the conviction was overturned), and quixotically as well as unsuccessfully ran for president and then vice-president.

But one chapter in the celebrity doctor’s career is often overlooked: his five formative years as a faculty member at Pitt and the important imprint he left behind. Indeed Spock himself, in his memoir Spock on Spock, never so much as mentions Pittsburgh. But at the Arsenal Family and Children’s Center in Pittsburgh’s Lawrenceville district, the Spock legacy is by no means forgotten. He founded the center with child-development specialist Margaret McFarland.

“Dr. Spock founded our center to focus on healthy child development,” declares Von Keairns, Arsenal’s current director who now occupies the large mahogany desk that Spock brought to the center in 1951. “And we continue to carry out his focus.”

Spock came to Pitt from the Mayo Clinic with his reputation already established. Duell, Sloan, and Pierce published his Baby and Child Care in 1945 after Spock served two years in the navy. Pocket Books’ paperback edition—Spock insisted it be sold at 25 cents—was quickly found at virtually every crib side in the country. The author, a child psychiatrist by training, provided avuncular advice on almost every parental worry, free of medical jargon. Rather than adhere to the old, rigid, child-rearing rules, he told parents to follow their instincts and foster the child’s emotional growth. Says Jonathon Erlen, a medical historian at Pitt, “His message to parents was, ‘Trust yourself.’”

“Pittsburgh has taken a long stride toward its goal of becoming one of the world’s leading medical centers,” exulted the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in November 1950, greeting the simultaneous appointment to the Department of Psychiatry of Spock, Henry Brosin, and Arthur Mirsky. The article identified the new appointees as “three of the nation’s top psychiatric experts.”

Spock established a child development clinic at Western Psychiatric Institute and Clinic. Its mission was to conduct research in children’s healthy development and serve as a training ground for pediatricians and psychiatrists.

The Arsenal center, a couple of miles away, was one of Spock’s first projects in Pittsburgh. “He believed that the emotional well-being of children was at least as important as their physical health,” says Keairns, who came to the center in 1968. “His attitude was that we should not wait for emotional problems and then treat them, but develop an atmosphere in which they did not occur in the first place. And the way to do that was to work with families and strengthen the family environment via a friendly neighborhood center. He chose Lawrenceville because its high-ethnic, less-mobile population seemed to guarantee continuity for the program.”

He recruited Erik Erikson, the great guru of child development, to lecture monthly to pediatric and psychiatric residents. Fledgling physicians should understand normal child development as well as treat illness, Spock maintained. A similar program continued well after Spock and Erikson left, until Pitt severed its ties with Arsenal in 1979 after a series of funding crises. Private funding now supports “Spock’s baby,” which now trains Duquesne University psychology students. But it still follows its founders’ vision from 50 years ago.

Spock and McFarland were right; the Lawrenceville community proved cohesive, which made tracking children easier. “We have Italian, Irish, Slavic families who have been coming here through three generations,” she says. Parents and children come together to the center, where parents are taught to observe and understand their children’s behavior. “We see many kinds of families Dr. Spock might not have envisioned,” Keairns says. In its special programs, Arsenal works with parents who have been estranged from their children for various reasons, including drug abuse. “But our point of departure always is—what are the children telling us they need?” says Keairns.

For example, Arsenal continues to carry out Spock and Erikson’s idea that play is a child’s most important learning tool. Arsenal’s “play curriculum” tells staff and parents to watch closely children’s play interests and then to furnish materials to enhance those interests. “We had a 3-year-old who was interested in dinosaurs,” Keairns says. “Not just a child’s ordinary fascination with dinosaurs. Real, deep, abiding interest, going beyond dinosaur toys. We furnished picture books, field trips to the Carnegie Museum’s dinosaur collection, et cetera.” She pauses for emphasis. “He is now an associate professor of geology at Southwest Texas State University specializing in paleontology.”

In 1953, with booming book sales and a monthly column in Ladies’ Home Journal, the Pitt professor became a television personality, too. His live, half-hour weekly program aired on public TV and then on NBC.

Spock’s eventual departure from Pitt can probably be summed up as classic academic infighting. According to his biographers, colleagues complained that Spock published popular books and magazine articles but had produced only two scientific articles in his Pitt career; others postulate that he concentrated too much on child development and not enough on existing psychiatric problems.

He saw himself as a lax administrator. “It was a job calling on some skills which I found that I didn’t have,” he told biographer Thomas Maier years later.

His department chair, Henry Brosin, was strong-willed. The two quickly clashed, especially about Spock’s right to choose his own clinical staff. Several times throughout 1954 and 1955, Spock submitted his resignation over the issue. Robert Moore, vice-chancellor for medical affairs, persuaded Spock to stay but yield his administrative duties. Brosin personally took over the clinic at Western Psychiatric. Mirsky, among the three recruits the Post-Gazette had dubbed “the finest psychiatric team in America,” later said, “Ben could have had anything, but because he was so convinced by Brosin that he was a lousy administrator, his productivity and career were permanently impaired.” In June 1955, Spock submitted his resignation again; this time it was accepted.

After Pitt, Spock became increasingly enmeshed in national issues, especially the antinuclear and antiwar movements. In the turbulent ’60s, politicians and other critics blamed his book for a generation raised on permissiveness that was disrespectful of authority. (Spock denied favoring permissiveness, but in later editions of his book he called for more parental firmness.) Decades later, even his progressive tendencies echo in Pittsburgh. On behalf of the Quaker office at the United Nations, Keairns is researching how young female child soldiers in Africa, Asia, and South America can reintegrate themselves into family and community life.

“I like to think that role is more evidence of Dr. Spock’s influence,” she says.