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Boston Dispensary Records

Call Number: MS214

Scope and Contents

This collection contains adminstrative records, annual reports, meeting minutes, policy and procedure manuals, financial records, scrapbooks, employee records, publications, and promotional materials relating to the Boston Dispensary (BD).

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 several materials, particularly folders, scrapbooks, and bound volumes, are still warped or retain a musty odor. In addition, much of the material is in fragile condition, and must be handled carefully.


  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1910 -- 1965
  • Creation: 1795 -- 1990


Language of Materials



This collection is open for research. Personnel records in series 16 are restricted for 75 years from the date of creation.

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.Any intellectual property rights that the donor possesses have not been transferred to Tufts University.

Biographical / Historical

The Boston Dispensary (BD) was founded by Oliver Smith in 1796, and was the third dispensary established in the United States. Officially incorporated on February 26, 1801, the BD was the first of the New England Medical Center consortium organizations to be founded. The consortium itself was formed in 1930 and is now known as the Tufts Medical Center.

The BD styled itself after seventeenth-century British dispensaries, in which physicians rendered free medical care to the poor in their homes, with medicine being prescribed by an apothecary. Funding was provided by donations, in the form of an annual subscription from local, wealthy families. This money paid for tickets that were dispensed to the poor, entitling them to home-based medical care. An annual donation of five dollars provided care for two patients, and those patients were chosen at the donor’s request. The BD held distinct advantages to patients over hospitals: care was less expensive, and by being treated at home patients were "comforted without being humiliated."

It is generally believed that the BD’s first known location was at 61 Cornhill Street. John Fleet was the first doctor and Oliver Smith its first apothecary. Physicians were required to work six days a week. The BD’s ruling body was a Board of Managers, and in its fifth year of practice they voted to divide the Dispensary into three districts, with a physician being appointed to each district. A year later, three apothecaries were appointed and by 1814, nurses were on the staff. Student instruction was integral to the functioning of the Dispensary, and it took in students from Tufts College School of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, and Boston College Medical School.

By the mid-eighteenth-century, the BD began implementing changes in its administrative structure, reflecting population growth and the subsequent strain on doctors. It was this change that fueled the medical trend of clinics, in which patients came to a central location to be treated. An Executive Committee was formed that enforced new by-laws and regulations. Their first order of business was to build a Central Office, allowing for outpatient treatment in a clinical atmosphere. The BD’s new by-laws also called for a reorganization of its medical staff for more efficient treatment of patients. Four physicians and four surgeons worked at the Central Office, with two consulting physicians and surgeons on call. Additional doctors were assigned to each of the city’s districts for home care. A medical superintendent was in charge of general supervision of all departments. The old system of tickets was abandoned in favor of prescriptions as a way to furnish medication at one location: an apothecary shop on Washington Street. This clinic model allowed for the treatment at a given time and place, as opposed to appointed visits, a method that was falling out of favor. The BD’s Central Office, located on Bennet Street, opened on July 28, 1856. That same year, Dr. John B. Alley became the first superintendent, with the Board of Managers continuing to play an important role in decision-making.

In 1911, the Tyler St. Day Nursery turned over its property and funds to the BD, allowing for in-patient children’s facility. By 1921, its 125th year of service, the BD added morning and evening clinics, a hospital for babies and children, and a Social Service department. The BD still relied solely on annual contributions and bequests for financial support. Volunteers who joined the hospital staff in caring for the sick were another essential component of the day-to-day running of the BD.

An affiliation with Tufts College School of Medicine in 1929 allowed for students to receive all or part of their training at the BD. In 1930, the BD joined with the Boston Floating Hospital (BFH) and Tufts College School of Medicine to form the consortium known as the New England Medical Center.

The financial impact of the Great Depression meant that the BD was no longer able to provide free care to its patients, which led to its merge with the Pratt Clinic/New England Center Hospital (PC/NECH) over the next two decades. Many other dispensaries were forced to merge with hospitals, but the BD was able to escape this fate under the leadership of Joseph H. Pratt. Pratt worked with the Board of Managers to create a twenty-bed diagnostic ward within the BD, financed by William Bingham II, a patient of Pratt’s. This venture proved so successful, the Joseph Pratt Diagnostic Hospital (PC) was built on Bennett Street and opened on December 15, 1938. It was the largest diagnostic facility in the US at the time. The PC was not only for diagnosis and treatment of clinic patients, it also offered New England physicians a place for diagnostic study of their private patients. Unlike either the BD or the BFH, the PC was a patient-paying institution. The PC later became the New England Center Hospital, courtesy of the Bingham Associates Fund. With the BFH, the Dispensary established a Children’s Psychiatric Service. In 1956, work began on the creation of a facility for treating the disabled called the Rehabilitation Institute.

1965 saw an official merger to integrate the BD, the BFH and the PC/NECH. The consolidation of these three organizations formed one corporation under the name the New England Medical Center Hospitals, Inc. During the merger, the Tufts-New England Medical Center (T-NEMC) was also established as a separate corporation with its own board, composed of members of the Board of Trustees of Tufts, as well as members of the Board of Governors of NEMC. Today, what was once the Boston Dispensary has since evolved into a fully integrated clinical unit of the Tufts Medical Center, and is located in the Chinatown neighborhood of Boston.


37.4 Linear Feet (26 boxes)

1 Artifact(s)

1 Digital Object(s)


This collection is organized into 17 series: Legacy collection documentation folder; Charlestown Free Dispensary records; Tyler Street Nursery records; Administrative and governance records; Publications and historical materials; Financial records; Employment records; X-Ray department records; United Services Committee correspondence; Clinical correspondence, agreements, and contracts; Massachusetts Department of Public Health records; Board of Trustees records; Superintendent records; Treasurer records; District Physician records; Apothecary records; and Memorabilia and miscellaneous.

The last six series contain records that were held at the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine until 2016. Countway's series arrangement has been maintained.

Custodial History

This collection was originally part of the archives of the New England Medical Center (NEMC), which closed in 1990. In 1977, Boston Dispensary (BD) records from the years 1796-1909 were accessioned by the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine. The remaining records were processed by Dave Nathan, archivist at the NEMC archives, in June 1989, and had the following NEMC acquisition numbers: 83-1; 85-1; 86-24; and 87-31.

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 December 2014 and January 2015, 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.

On August 15, 2016, materials that were formerly on deposit with the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine were transferred to DCA and were added to this collection.

Related Materials

MS099, New England Medical Center records, DCA.

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

MS213, Boston Floating Hospital records, DCA
MS222, Pratt Clinic/New England Center Hospital records, DCA
MS224, Tufts-New England Medical Center records, DCA
MS221, Samuel Proger papers, DCA

Processing Information

This collection was processed between June and July 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. Some series were merged and additional series were created by DCA. Employment files from the BD that were in the original NEMC archives' collection Personnel Records were added to the Employment records series of this collection (MS214.007). In addition, some material was rehoused in archival folders. Collection and series description written by Dave Nathan was updated. Not all material listed in Dave Nathan's Guide to the NEMC Archives was transferred to DCA. According to Dave Nathan's Guide to the NEMC Archives, one artifact, a cash box from 1797 belonging to the Boston Dispensary, was part of this Artifacts collection at the original NEMC archives, and is missing. Items missing from other series have been noted at the series level.

2016 accessions were processed by Dan Bullman, Archives and Reference Assistant, under the supervision of Collections Management Archivist Adrienne Pruitt.

Processing status

This collection is processed.

Processing Information

In April 2018 boxes 10 and 12 were treated for mold remediation by Polygon Group. All folders were replaced and all materials treated.

Repository Details

Part of the Tufts Archival Research Center Repository

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