Floating Hospital

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The Floating Hospital
Julian Davidson - The Emma Abbott, First Floating Hospital.JPG
The Emma Abbott, the first floating hospital vessel, in an 1876 painting
LocationNew York City, New York, United States
ListsHospitals in New York
Other linksHospitals in Queens

The Floating Hospital is a non-profit organization that provides healthcare services to medically underserved communities in New York City, both from its headquarters in Long Island City, Queens and from satellite offices in Brooklyn and The Bronx. Though today it is a land-based organization, the organization operated a succession of vessels which frequently cruised New York Harbor and nearby waterways, giving indigent children and their caregivers a respite from overcrowded tenements. While they were aboard, the Floating Hospital's staff of pediatricians, dentists, nurses, and social workers would provide healthcare services to children and health and nutrition education to their caregivers.

Despite its name, the organization does not operate a hospital in the usual sense. It has functioned as an outpatient facility from its earliest days, though it was affiliated with an acute care hospital prior to World War II. Presently, it is not affiliated with any other organization. The Floating Hospital for Children in Boston, Massachusetts, founded in 1894, was inspired by the Floating Hospital in New York but was always a separate organization. It became a land-based acute care hospital in the 1930s and later merged with Tufts Medical Center.



The Floating Hospital traces its origins to October 1866 as a series of charitable excursions first conducted by steamboat tycoon John Starin for the benefit of newsboys, war veterans, and the needy.[1] In the summer of 1872, George F. Williams, a managing editor of the New York Times, witnessed a policeman forcing a group of newsboys in City Hall Park off the grass and onto the concrete walkways, which burned their feet. When Williams returned to his office the next day, he wrote an appeal to the Times' readership for money to charter a boat trip for the city's newsboys and bootblacks, so that they could be turned loose on grassy shores of nearby waterways.[2][3]

The next year, Williams asked the St. John's Guild to take over the organization of the trips, which had become more regular. The Guild was founded in 1866 as a charitable affiliate of St. John's Chapel of the Episcopal parish of Trinity Church. In 1875, the guild purchased and outfitted its first vessel, which was named for Emma Abbott, a famous singer and early benefactor. Two years later the guild severed its connections with the Episcopal Church and became non-sectarian. The hospital was officially "The Floating Hospital of the St. John's Guild" until 1980, when the guild was dissolved and the hospital was reincorporated as a wholly independent entity.[4]

Early Years[edit]

In subsequent decades the Floating Hospital served over 5 million children and their caregivers, through their program of regular outings on their vessels (which were apparently daily, at least in warmer months). Besides a strong recreational component, these outings also were seen as being medically important, because children were exposed to clean air and salt water, which were seen as curative by many people in that era, and also because while on-board they would be examined and treated by medical professionals. At the same time, other staff members could instruct caregivers in good child-rearing practices. A 1903 article in a nursing journal provides a sketch of the activities aboard the ship during these outings:

There are three landings daily on each side of the city and in Brooklyn. The first is made at eight a.m., and as the hospital approaches the pier one sees in line hundreds of anxious mothers carrying the sick children, who have patiently awaited the approach of the hospital for some time, for many leave their homes very early to get out in the free, open air. ... All cases which are too ill to be sent to the upper deck are immediately given either a dispensary or ward ticket, and between landings receive a reexamination by the hospital physician, who prescribes accordingly. Many cases come daily or as often as is necessary for the benefit of the sick child. ... Each family in the morning on entering the hospital and again during the noon hour receives a ticket bearing the number of children or adults who are entitled to receive milk, and these tickets are presented at the milk department at ten A.M and two P.M., when fresh, cold milk is distributed. ... Instructions of one hour are given tri-weekly by the chief of the nursing department to young mothers, half of the time assigned to the lecture being devoted to the care of infants, preparation of foods, etc., and the remaining half hour is given them for asking questions, and I can bear testimony that they show thought and an intense desire for better living. ... At the noon hour anchor is cast twelve miles down the bay and one mile from shore, practically at mid-ocean, and full benefit of the sea-air is obtained. Opposite this anchorage is the Seaside Hospital, to which the severe cases needing constant attention are transferred, always accompanied by the mother, who remains indefinitely, at the discretion of the hospital physicians. ... At three-thirty P.M. the anchor is raised and the hospitals return to the city, landing all at their respective piers, children improved and mothers wiser for the day's trip.[3]

Seaside Hospital[edit]

The Seaside Hospital mentioned in the quotation above was also run by the St. John's Guild and was a frequent destination of Floating Hospital trips. It was located on ten acres on the shore of the Atlantic Ocean in New Dorp, Staten Island, and was founded in 1881 and greatly expanded in 1899.[5] The sickest children were transferred from the Floating Hospital to Seaside Hospital, where they were cared for by doctors and nurses and where their mothers were also accommodated. Seaside Hospital was converted into a military hospital during World War II and demolished in the 1960s.[6]

Later Years[edit]

The Floating Hospital continued the basic formula of attracting families with recreational opportunities on board their vessel and providing professional medical services to them while they were aboard through the late 20th century. By the 1970s, the hospital described itself as "basically a disease prevention and referral agency" that focused on education, though it also provided outpatient services on its vessel, both during outings in summer months and while moored at its regular berth in the South Street Seaport during the winter.[7]

The hospital's regular berth moved several times in its later years. After using a Hudson River pier near 44th Street in the 1980s, for much of the 1990s it bounced between two piers in the East River: Pier 11 at the foot of Wall Street and Pier 17 at the foot of Fulton Street. It was moored at Pier 11 in 2001 at the time of the September 11 attacks, which leveled the World Trade Center a short distance away. Though undamaged, the Floating Hospital would never again find a suitable mooring site. Pier 11 was needed for expanded ferry service to Lower Manhattan, and the management of Pier 17 was generally hostile to the presence of the vessel and its clients amid what they were promoting as an upscale retail venue.

In 2002, a temporary move to Brooklyn became permanent when the Floating Hospital was barred from Pier 17 and could not find another suitable berth in New York City where their clients could safely board the ship.[8] In 2003 the Hospital sold its vessel and became a land-based facility based in Chinatown.[1] Finally, in 2006 it moved to its present headquarters in Long Island City, Queens, an area designated at the time by the Federal government as medically underserved.[4]


The Floating Hospital owned 5 vessels over the 130 years that it provided marine-based services. Most of these were in fact engineless barges that were pulled around New York's waterways by tugboats. These were:


Most of these photos are undated, but are from collections that date from about 1900-1916. The Helen Juillard vessel mentioned in the captions is probably the first one in most or all of these cases.


  1. ^ a b Cardwell, Diane (1 September 2003). "Long-Lived Floating Hospital Is Still Going, Just Not Floating". New York Times. Retrieved 18 April 2014.
  2. ^ "1,601,933 Cared For On Hospital Ships" (PDF). New York Times. 11 June 1916. Retrieved 18 April 2014.
  3. ^ a b Palmer, Sarah Bessie (Oct 1903). "The Floating Hospital of St. John's Guild, New York City". The American Journal of Nursing. 4 (1): 4–8. doi:10.2307/3401605. JSTOR 3401605.
  4. ^ a b c "The Floating Hospital - History". The Floating Hospital. Retrieved 18 April 2014.
  5. ^ "The Seaside Hospital. New Building Erected by St. John's Guild at New Dorp, Staten Island, Dedicated" (PDF). New York Times. 17 June 1899. Retrieved 25 April 2014.
  6. ^ Carse, Kathryn. "New Dorp Beach waterfront awash in memories". SILive.com. Retrieved 25 April 2014.
  7. ^ "Floating Hospital Providing Medical Haven for the Poor" (PDF). New York Times. 16 July 1979. Retrieved 18 April 2014.
  8. ^ Newman, Andy (18 December 2002). "Marooned in Brooklyn, Floating Hospital Seeks Manhattan Pier". New York Times. Retrieved 18 April 2014.
  9. ^ "St. John's Guild Work" (PDF). New York Times. 7 July 1899. Retrieved 18 April 2014.
  10. ^ "Floating Hospital Ready" (PDF). New York Times. 5 July 1916. Retrieved 18 April 2014.

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