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Life on the Corner: The Boston Floating Hospital

I read recently that Tufts Medical Center is renaming the Boston Floating Hospital and it will now be known as the Tufts Children’s Hospital.

Although I think this is sad, I suppose they have to compete with Children’s, MGH/Brigham, and Boston Medical Center, and a name change might better reflect the hospital’s present location. To me, it will always be the Floating Hospital. It has a long and close relationship with the North End.

The Floating Hospital was founded in 1894 when Boston was at the peak of the immigration deluge. Eastern European Jews, Southern Italians, and other ethnics were flooding into Boston and living mostly in the tenement districts of the North and West Ends. Living conditions were wretched with large families crowded into tiny apartments without heat or hot water.

Communicable diseases ran rampant in these crowded neighborhoods, and infant mortality was shockingly high. At the turn of the twentieth century, as many as one in ten infants born in slum districts died before the age of five. Cholera infantum, a kind of childhood diarrhea, was the main cause of death, but other diseases like measles, mumps, scarlet fever, influenza, and polio were also common and greatly feared. The medical establishment thought the congested living conditions and the bad air in the city was the cause of these illnesses.

A whole fresh air movement sprang up. Bostonians who could afford it left the city, particularly in the summer months when these diseases seemed to be the most prevalent. Wealthy people sent their families to the North Shore to towns like Prides Crossing, Manchester, or Magnolia. Ordinary Bostonians bought or rented homes on the South Shore, Plymouth, Wareham, and other far suburbs where land was cheap. My mother’s family spent a few summers at a friend’s farm in Woburn, which was a farming town at that time, just to get out of the city.

The two North End settlement houses ran summer camps for local children. The North Bennet Street Industrial School ran Boxford Camp for girls and Caddy Camp in New Hampshire for boys. A lot of North End boys became skilled golfers at Caddy Camp. The North End Union ran Camp Parker in Pembroke on the South Shore. I went to and worked at this camp for several summers. In 1955 there was a terrible polio epidemic and the camp wouldn’t allow our parents to visit. All of us campers and councilors missed the good Italian food our mammas brought to the camp on Visitor’s Sunday.

The Floating Hospital actually did float. It was started by a Congregational minister named Rufus Tobey who wanted to do something to help the poor residents of Boston. The first iteration of the Floating Hospital was a barge and later a steamship that took children and their mothers out into the harbor. The hospital ship docked in various places in the inner harbor, sometimes in Charlestown, but mostly at the two level dock at the old North End beach on Commercial Street.

The children were examined by Tufts medical students and resident physicians. There was even a nursing program on board. Mothers were given lessons in child rearing, hygiene, breast feeding, etc. For some strange reason, the medical establishment thought the immigrant mothers had to be taught how to raise and feed their own children, activities they had been successfully doing for generations.

The Floating Hospital also developed an artificial substitute for breast milk called Similac, which is still being sold. Why they thought milk formula was better than a mother’s own milk is an open question, but North End mothers were very generous in breast feeding their own and other children. A common sight in the North End was nursing mothers feeding their babies while sitting outside. They would often feed a friend’s baby if the friend couldn’t produce enough milk or had to run an errand.

The Floating Hospital became land based after a fire destroyed the boat in the late 1920s, and the city health clinics in the tenement neighborhoods assumed the responsibility of treating the poor. There were two clinics in the North End—one on Hull Street and the other on North Margin Street. The settlement houses also ran health screenings and inoculation clinics at various times.

Very few North End residents had health insurance, and it wasn’t until Medicare was introduced by President Johnson in 1965 that senior citizens had health care. My maternal grandmother lived in a fourth floor walk up on Salem Street and couldn’t leave her apartment for the last ten years of her life because of crippling arthritis of both her hips. She would let down a basket and ask me or another young boy to go and buy her some milk or bread. These days she would have had the option to have hip prostheses paid for by Medicare. How she would have loved being able to visit her husband’s grave or shopping with her friends on Salem Street. It really was a different world.

Nicholas Dello Russo is a lifelong North Ender and columnist. Often using vintage photographs, Nick tells the stories of growing up in the North End along with its culture and traditions. It was a time when the apartments were so small that residents were always on the streets enjoying “Life on the Corner.” Read more of Nick’s columns.

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3 Replies to “Life on the Corner: The Boston Floating Hospital

  1. Many thanks, Nick. Great history, as always. It was especially interesting to me since my uncle got his medical degree from Tufts in the 1920s and perhaps interned or studied on the Floating Hospital. Our home was always filled with sample canned milk that Carnation or some other company was promoting to pediatricians.

  2. Excellent article Nick, well done. I have a personal relationship with the Floating Hospital. My construction company Barr & Barr, Inc. built the existing building that spans Washington Street. I was the Project Manager.

  3. The Flosting Hospital had a strong connection to the North End. The picture accompanying the article shows the boat leaving the two tiered dock that ran parallel to the North End park on Commercial Street. The hospital boat docked at a number of places in the harbor but the North End was one of the prime locations.
    The Similac issue is very controversial. The research was sponsored by a drug company that was trying to get immigrant mothers to use the “modern”, American” way to nurse their babies. The Italian nonnas and mammas knew better.

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