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Boston Floating Hospital Records

Call Number: MS213

Scope and Contents

This collection contains annual reports, meeting minutes, correspondence, publications, photographs, and promotional materials relating to the founding and running of the Boston Floating Hospital for Infants and Children (BFH), now the Floating Hospital for Children, the pediatric wing of the Tufts Medical Center. Most official records are by the Board of Trustees of the BFH. Also included are early autopsy records, the BFH’s original certificate of incorporation from 1901, and research notes for the commemorative book The Boston Floating Hospital: How a Boston Harbor Barge Changed the Course of Pediatric Medicine. The organization's records offer rich documentation of the BFH’s incorporation into the New England Medical Center (NEMC), and offer insight into training in pediatric nursing.

As there was a periodic shifting of departments to and from NEMC/T-NEMC and their constituent institutions, any comprehensive search of a particular topic over time must involve also consulting the other NEMC archives collections at TARC. Contact TARC for information about associated material of this collection.

This collection suffered extensive water damage due to a flood before it was in the custody of DCA. It underwent conservation efforts before processing, but some material, particularly scrapbooks and bound volumes, are still warped or retain a musty odor. In addition, many items are fragile, and must be handled carefully.


  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1894 -- 1985
  • Creation: 1890 -- 1990


Language of Materials



This collection contains some restricted material. Specific restrictions are noted in the Detailed Contents List in each series.

Conditions Governing Use

Some material in this collection may be protected by copyright and other rights. Please see “Reproductions and Use” on the Digital Collections and Archives website for more information about reproductions and permission to publish. Requests for copyright permission must be referred to the Tufts Medical Center.

Biographical / Historical

The Boston Floating Hospital (BFH) was founded by Rufus B. Tobey, a Congregational minister, in 1894. A ship that floated around Boston Harbor during the summer season, the BFH provided free medical care to indigent infants and children under the age of five. It was also known for studying children’s diseases, innovations in milk formula, and for training nurses to instruct mothers in the care of sick children.

Two factors contributed to the establishment of the BFH, one charitable and one medical: the relatively wide spread philanthropy work throughout New England, and the conviction by some that sea air was therapeutic during convalescence. Walking home from work on South Boston each evening, Reverend Tobey observed mothers bringing their children to the Boston waterfront, enabling them to breath the sea air. Learning of a hospital boat in New York, he, with the help of Edward Hale, spearheaded the effort to set up a similar institution in Boston. The BFH was a private charity, and relied on donations for its endowment and expenses.

The barge Clifford, the BFH’s first base of operations, made its maiden voyage in Boston Harbor on July 25, 1894. Attendance was around eighteen hundred, which nearly doubled by its second year. Medical students constituted most of the staff, under the supervision of chief physician J. B. Thornton. These first years brought significant accomplishments: a pharmacy, kindergarten, and “Modified Milk Department” were set up on board the Clifford, and by 1897, an inpatient department allowed for overnight stay, under the medical leadership of Samuel Breck. The BFH was officially incorporated by the state of Massachusetts in October of 1901. The Clifford was replaced by the Boston Floating Hospital Ship in 1906. The BFH also had an on-shore department, located first in the North End before moving to Roxbury in 1916.

An early innovation for the BFH came by way of Francis Parkman Denny in the milk lab, who organized a human milk collection system for sick babies, a practice that eliminated the need for wet nurses. Further research in the milk lab contributed to the development of the first synthetic milk product, commonly known as Similac. Later on, the BFH established a bacteriological laboratory (1910), and a Post Graduate Training School for Nurses (1916).

On July 1, 1927, the Boston Floating Hospital Ship burnt. While the BFH was never again resurrected as a ship, it was rebuilt as a land-based facility because of its achievements in lowering the infant mortality rate. In 1930, it joined the Boston Dispensary (BD) and the Tufts College School of Medicine to form the New England Medical Center (NEMC). The land-based BFH was located at 20 Ash Street in Boston, known as the Jackson Memorial Building, and officially opened on October 12, 1931. It continued to provide free outpatient services to the Boston community until November 1938, when it began charging for its services; a day’s stay at the BFH cost five dollars. The NEMC consortium was beneficial to its three partners; students from Tufts College School of Medicine gained practical experiences at the BFH and BD, for example, and provided medical services in return. Laboratory tests and operations at NEMC throughout the years led to significant advances in medical treatment. According to a 1938 log book, patients who suffered from upper respiratory infections were given throat cultures at NEMC, which motivated doctors to make this part of routine laboratory practice, in addition to blood and urine tests.

Up until 1965, NEMC existed as an overseer to its constituent organizations. In 1965, the Board of Trustees of the BFH voted yes to an official merger to integrate with the BD and the Pratt Clinic/New England Center Hospital (PC/NECH). (The Pratt Diagnostic Clinic, an extension of the Boston Dispensary, was established in 1938. It became a unit of NEMC in 1946 and was renamed New England Center Hospital.) The consolidation of these three organizations formed one corporation under the name the New England Medical Center Hospitals, Inc. In addition, during the merger, the Tufts-New England Medical Center (T-NEMC) had also been established as a separate corporation. T-NEMC had its own board, composed of members of the Board of Trustees of Tufts, as well as members of the Board of Governors of NEMC. The BFH opened a new facility in October of 1979, which was further expanded in 1982.

In September 2020, the Floating Hospital for Children changed its name to Tufts Children Hospital, to better emphasize its relationship to its parent organization, Tufts Medical Center. It is located in the Chinatown neighborhood of Boston.


7.1 Linear Feet (5 record cartons, 1 oversize box )


The collection is organized into 7 series: Legacy collection documentation folder; Administrative and governance records; Press releases, publications, and historical materials; Nursing department; and Autopsy reports and patient charts; Artifacts; and Research files for The Boston Floating Hospital: How a Boston Harbor Barge Changed the Course of Pediatric Medicine.

Custodial History

This collection was originally part of the archives of the New England Medical Center (NEMC), which closed in 1990. The collection was processed by Dave Nathan, archivist at the NEMC archives, in June 1989, and had the following NEMC acquisition numbers: 83-5; 83-10; 84-10; 84-15; 84-18; 84-21; 85-1; 85-12; 85-17; 87-31; 88-18; 89-8.

In spring 2013, NEMC material was transferred from NEMC to a restoration company for conservation treatment, and was then transferred to off-site storage in custody of Digital Collections and Archives (DCA). In winter 2014, the material was transferred to DCA for processing. Some material originally in the NEMC archives was not transferred to DCA, due to either poor condition or loss.

Related Materials

New England Medical Center Records, 1880-2009. Tufts University. Digital Collections and Archives. Medford, MA.

Dave Nathan transferred images to the Visual Materials collection at the New England Medical Center archives in 1989 -- and BFH photographs are now located in the Photographs and audiovisual materials series of the New England Medical Center records (MS099.001). Other BFH records may also be found in MS099.

Boston Dispensary Records, 1795-1990. Tufts University. Digital Collections and Archives. Medford, MA.

Ralph Deterling Papers, 1959-1990. Tufts University. Digital Collections and Archives. Medford, MA.

Pratt Clinic/New England Center Hospital Records, 1929-1990. Tufts University. Digital Collections and Archives. Medford, MA.

Tufts-New England Medical Center records, 1929-1990. Tufts University. Digital Collections and Archives. Medford, MA.

Processing Information

This collection was processed between April 2014 and May 2014 by Elizabeth Mc Gorty, Project Archivist, under the supervision of Susanne Belovari, Archivist for Reference and Collections.

This collection was previously processed by Dave Nathan. On transfer to DCA, the arrangement devised by Dave Nathan was revised. All series containing administrative, financial, and staff records were merged into one series, Administration and governance (MS213.002), by DCA. In addition, some material was rehoused in archival folders. Collection and series descriptions written by Dave Nathan was updated. Not all material listed in Dave Nathan's Guide to the NEMC Archives was transferred to DCA. Missing items have been noted at the series level.

Processing status

This collection is processed.

Repository Details

Part of the Tufts Archival Research Center Repository

35 Professors Row
Tisch Library Building
Tufts University
Medford Massachusetts 02155 United States