In the 1950s and 1960s, any household in which kids were being reared likely held a well-worn paperback copy of Dr. Benjamin Spock’s “Baby and Child Care.”
Spock’s book, published in 1946 at the dawn of the great postwar baby boom, arrived just in time to help new parents raise a generation of children. The book was already a best-seller in 1947 when Spock moved to Rochester to take up a position with Mayo Clinic’s Child Health Institute.
The city was a breath of fresh, and cold, air for Spock, after years of working in New York City. “I love the Minnesota life,” Spock wrote to a friend. “It is a luxury to have squeaky snow all winter long.”
Spock’s wife, Jane, wasn’t quite as thrilled with the weather. She complained bitterly about the, well, bitter cold. In addition, Jane, who had been active in political causes in New York, found Rochester’s narrow and conservative social life to be stifling.
At first, Jane didn’t want to buy a home in Rochester -- the better to be able to pull up stakes after the next severe winter. But Spock, according to biographers, talked her into buying a place on Second Street Northwest near Saint Marys Hospital. Their son Michael became a state champion swimmer at Rochester High School.
As for Spock’s work, he found it exciting and groundbreaking. The Child Health Institute was an outgrowth of a program founded by C. Anderson Aldrich. The goal was to study and hopefully improve the physical and mental health of Rochester children.
For Spock, the attraction was obvious: “No other place in the world offered such a large-scale study of child development, with such a universal promise of continuous care,” wrote Spock biographer Thomas Maier.
In other words, cold climate and stuffy society aside, this was the place for Spock, who was 43 at the time.
Spock, a native of New Haven, Conn., attended Yale, won a gold medal in rowing at the 1924 Olympics, and earned his medical degree from Columbia. Spock was a practicing pediatrician in New York from 1933 until he moved to Rochester. In his book and lectures, he urged parents to be attentive to the needs of each individual child. Critics charged him with helping to create permissive parents and coddled children.
But his advice proved popular with a generation of first-time parents in a society recovering from the depravations of the Great Depression and the horror of World War II. Spock became not only a best-selling author, but a national celebrity.
Oddly enough, Rochester, familiar with hosting so many celebrities as visitors, wasn’t entirely sure what to make of the Spock family. Jane told friends she found it difficult to hold serious discussions with other wives who seemed uninterested in national and international affairs.
The Spocks tended to socialize with younger active couples who were Mayo fellows, rather than with Mayo physicians their own age. Many of those older physicians, as biographers have noted, tended to view Spock with skepticism.
When Aldrich died in 1949 and the clinic subsequently eliminated funding for the child institute, Spock decided it was time to move on. He left Rochester in June 1951 for a new position at the University of Pittsburgh.
Spock returned to Rochester in 1974 to speak at a dinner honoring Helen Remley, who was retiring as director of the Aldrich Memorial Nursery School. At that point, there were already 22 million copies of “Baby and Child Care” in print in dozens of languages.
Thomas Weber is a former Post Bulletin reporter who enjoys writing about local history.