In the black-and-white image from 1914, an unidentified child pokes his head through a life preserver with the words “The Boston Floating Hospital” around the rim. More than 100 years after the photo was taken, staff members at Tufts Medical Center are trying to discover who he is.
The Floating Hospital began on a boat in 1894 and expanded to a larger ship in 1905.
“This particular photo has been used by the hospital for promotional purposes and for fundraising, and unfortunately, we don’t know the child’s name,” said Daniel Bird, the director of volunteer services and “unofficial historian” at Tufts Medical Center.
Bird has become fascinated with the image of this boy, who became the face of the academic medical center.
The Floating Hospital for Children literally started on a boat in 1894, Bird said.
“Back in that era, there wasn’t anything like what we might call pediatrics. There was no natural medicine or cures for most of the childhood diseases and illnesses,” Bird said.
The ship was destroyed by a fire in 1927, with no patients on board. It reopened on land, and today, the pediatric hospital is a 128-bed facility in downtown Boston. But the image of the child and the life preserver serves as a reminder of the hospital’s origins.
“That photo kind of goes back to our roots,” Bird said. “It’s still an attractive photo. It’s still one that’s impactful and one that most people would recognize.”
So, who is the boy in the buoy?
The photographer is unknown, and the photograph itself does not provide many clues. The back of the image reads “boy in life preserver photo taken aboard the floating hospital.” At the time, many children had their photo taken on the boat, as a sort of souvenir.
In a historic image, the Floating Hospital ambulance sits before the hospital ship.
“It was a staff photo, and it would be whoever was free at the moment would’ve taken the pictures,” he said. “A lot of different children would get it, so it was not attributed to a professional photographer.”
Though there is not much to go on, Bird believes that the face belongs to a Boston native. At the time of the photo, most visitors on the ship were residents of downtown Boston or the South End, rather than greater Boston or New England.
“Even though it’s now over 100 years old … maybe he had children and grandchildren who may have heard of the story,” Bird said. “We could identify it and maybe give some recognition to that little boy and the family.”
Although there haven’t been any leads since he took on this project late last year, 70-year-old Bird remains optimistic.
“Because Boston’s a relatively tight community, it’s not far-fetched to think we might be successful in identifying this little boy,” he said.
Anyone with information about the child in the photo is asked to contact hospital spokesman Jeremy Lechan at firstname.lastname@example.org.