TBT: When Tufts’ Floating Hospital Sailed the Boston Harbor

Today, Tufts is trying to identify the child in an iconic historical photo.

Floating Hospital

Floating Hospital/Photo provided

Today, Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center sits squarely on Washington Street, near Chinatown. But less than a century ago, it didn’t have a street address at all.

Between 1894 and 1927, Floating Hospital for Children was just that: a pediatric hospital on a boat. At the time—a time when pediatric medicine as we know it did not exist—many people believed that fresh air, and particularly sea air, could help sick children. By that logic, a boat was the perfect home for a hospital.

Reverend Rufus Tobey, the assistant pastor at the South End’s Berkeley Temple, pushed the idea forward, eventually raising enough money to charter an old barge, called the Clifford, around the Boston Harbor. It served 1,110 children that first summer, and picked up steam over time.

In the early 1900s, buoyed by the program’s success, Boston Floating Hospital moved to a better, bigger, newer boat equipped to provide more sophisticated medical care. On that boat, doctors pioneered infant formula, advanced the idea of kindergarten (for the healthy siblings of children getting treatment), and laid the foundation for modern-day pediatrics.

In 1927, in a twist of fate, the Floating caught fire and burned down to sea level. (No patients were on board.) Only then did its operations move to solid land, where they remain today.

Recently, Daniel Bird, Tufts Medical Center’s director of volunteer services and the hospital’s “unofficial historian,” coauthored a book about the Floating. While researching, he time and time again came across an iconic 1914 image of one of the Floating’s young passengers posing with a life preserver, as was a common practice at the time.

Floating Hospital

Bird is trying to identify the boy in this image/Photo provided

“[The photo] became synonymous with the hospital, yet we didn’t even know who it was,” Bird remembers. “We said, ‘Wouldn’t it be great and fun to know who this person was, and how they came to be on the ship that day?”

A year after his book hit shelves, Bird is intensifying his quest to identify the child in the photograph. While he admits it might be tricky, Bird says he’d love to finally put a name to a face.

“I’d love to have a story attached to that photo,” he says.

Whether or not Bird ever tracks down the answer, he says it’s been a joy to share the Floating’s whimsical story with the public.

“At one time it was phenomenally famous,” he says. “It just got totally lost in the history, and it’s been fun to bring it back.”

If you know anything about the identity of the boy in the photo, contact Jeremy Lechan, in Tufts Medical Center’s department of media relations, at jlechan@tuftsmedicalcenter.org.