Daniel Bird has looked at the photograph of the child in the ruffled shirt, leaning on the life preserver, hundreds of times. As the unofficial historian at Tufts Medical Center, the century-old black-and-white image has always captured his curiosity.
It’s been used to promote and raise funds for the Floating Hospital for Children in Boston for decades, featured in pamphlets, books, and marketing materials.
But little is known about the doe-eyed child with the button nose — they assume it’s a boy based on the information provided on the back of the picture — staring into the camera.
“We get questions — who is it? And why is he there?” said Bird, director of volunteers at Tufts. “Was he one of the sick children? What did he do with his life, and is he still living? We said, ‘We really should know that.’”
Flummoxed and without any promising leads, Bird is asking for the public’s help tracking down the story behind the image, so he can finally find out who the “Floating Hospital Lifesaver Boy” was.
“Maybe if we found out his name, we could trace his life story and find out why he was there” on the boat, he said, “and find out what happened to him after that.”
The image of the boy, clutching a flotation device that reads “Boston Floating Hospital” and staring soulfully back at the camera, was taken in 1914, when the pediatric hospital, known today as the Floating Hospital for Children at Tufts Medical Center, was actually on a boat that traveled the Boston Harbor.
At the turn of the 20th century, with little in the way of cures for diseases or modern medicine, it was believed that the ocean breeze could help sooth a child’s illness.
The medical ship was founded in the late 1800s. At first a barge that was towed around the harbor with sick children on board, it was later upgraded to a larger ship featuring an inpatient unit, a nursing school, a research facility, and kindergarten, according to the hospital’s website.
Then, in 1927, the ship burned down, a tragedy blamed on the careless disposal of a ciggarette. Fortunately, there were no children on board at the time of the blaze, which records show caused $200,000 worth of damage and sent flames and smoke high into the air.
Four years after the fire, according to Globe archives, the hospital moved to shore. It officially merged with Tufts Medical Center in 1965.
For the children who were on the water-borne hospital when it was in use, it became a custom to pose for a photograph with the flotation device, Bird said.
“It became the thing to do,” he said. “One of the things that would amuse the children is they could get their picture taken inside this life preserver.”
This particular image of the young boy struck a chord for many, however. When there was any type of fund-raiser, it kept resurfacing as the picture most associated with the hospital.
“There are other photos, but that was the one that became the photo,” said Bird. “It’s still being used. I have seen it in our literature and brochures we use today... We’ve used it so much, that we almost feel guilty that we’ve never given credit to who this little boy was, or to the family.”
He added, “The look — he has this look of looking back at you, and somehow it’s a compelling kind of photo. You can take 100 pictures, but one obviously stands out … that one, people were attracted to.”
Bird is more than just the volunteer coordinator at the hospital. He also gives tours of the facility, and appears at libraries across the state to retell the history of the floating pediatrics ward.
In the fall last year, while giving a presentation at a library in Braintree, a woman from Hingham who had once stayed at the hospital as a child approached Bird. She told him that she was featured on the cover of an annual hospital report, and shared with him a picture of herself from 1937.
When he later reconnected with the woman in December, she asked a question that for years had nagged at Bird, but often fallen off of his to-do list: “Who is the boy in that iconic hospital image?”
Since seriously setting to work in the last three months to finally solve the mystery, the 70-year-old’s mission has become two-fold. What started out as a hunt for information about the child has also become an opportunity to educate the public about a significant piece of Boston history.
Bird said not many people know that the Floating Hospital for Children was once afloat on the city’s harbor. He hopes that asking for the public’s assistance will bolster a renewed interest in the subject.
“I would love to get more people to learn the story,” he said.
But the little boy, he added, remains his main focus.
“There’s probably a really interesting story behind this person. Somebody knows who he is, we just haven’t found that person yet,” said Bird. “If you ask enough people, all of a sudden it’s going to come.”
Anyone with information about the boy in the photo is asked to contact hospital spokesman Jeremy Lechan, at firstname.lastname@example.org.