Exploring Human Potential

Spock, Feminists, and the Fight for Participatory Medicine: A History

Posted on | June 24, 2011 | Comments Off on Spock, Feminists, and the Fight for Participatory Medicine: A History

Michael Millenson


If there was a moment when the modern-day relationship between physicians and patients changed forever, it was when Dr. Benjamin McLane Spock, author and pediatrician, rose to address the closing session of the American Medical Association’s centenary meeting on June 13, 1947. Spock’s The Common Sense Book of Baby and Child Care, published the previous year, had become a surprise best-seller in large part due to a startlingly untraditional approach to the doctor-patient relationship. The AMA’s original Code of Medical Ethics had advised doctors that “the obedience of a patient to the prescriptions of his physician should be prompt and implicit. [The patient] should never permit his own crude opinions as to their fitness to influence his attention to them.” The most recent ethics update at that time, from 1903, had softened that to “reasonable indulgence should be granted to the caprices of the sick.[1]”

Such “reasonable indulgence,” however, had limits. In 1947, the “crude opinions” of patients were still held in such low esteem that pediatricians routinely gave anxious new mothers detailed schedules instructing them when to feed their infant. Yet here was Spock telling the House of Medicine that mothers could trust their own instincts and feed their babies “when he seems hungry, irrespective of the hour.[2]”

Although some called this the “self-demand schedule,” Spock disdained this “new-fangled” label.[2] Instead, he pointed out that mothers deciding when to feed their babies was “obviously nature’s own [method], which was used by the entire human race until the turn of the century.[3]”

Cry and be fed, and damn the doctor’s orders! (Read on….)


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