Boston Dispensary Records, 1795 -- 1990


Title: Boston Dispensary Records
Dates: 1795 -- 1990
Bulk Dates: 1910 -- 1965
Creator: Boston Floating Hospital
Call Number: MS214
Size: 37.4 Cubic Feet, 26 boxes, 1 Artifact(s), 1 Digital Object(s)
Language(s): English  
Permanent URL:
    Digital Collections and Archives, Tufts University


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 DCA. Contact DCA 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.


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.


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.

Access and Use

Access Restrictions

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

Use Restrictions

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.

Collection History

Processing Notes

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.

This collection is processed.

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

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.

Subjects and Genre Terms
  • Boston Dispensary
  • Tufts Medical Center
  • Pratt Diagnostic Clinic
  • New England Center Hospital
  • Medical care
  • Free medical care
  • Pratt, Joseph H. (Joseph Hersey), 1872-1956
  • Proger, Samuel, 1906-1984
  • Davis, Michael
  • Smith, Oliver, 1749 or 1750-1797
  • New England Medical Center
  • Tufts-New England Medical Center
  • Boston Floating Hospital
  • Tufts College. Medical School
  • Tufts University. School of Medicine
  • Physicians
  • Nurses
  • Patient care
  • Hospitals--Medical staff
  • University history
  • Medicine -- History
  • Medical history
Related Material
  • 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

Series Description

  1. Legacy collection documentation folder, 1990

    This series contains the finding aids by NEMC archivist Dave Nathan, as well as NEMC acquisition records that detail what was accessioned by the NEMC archives related to the Boston Dispensary.

  2. Charlestown Free Dispensary records, 1872 -- 1919

    This series includes bylaws, meeting minutes, and account entries from the Charlestown Free Dispensary and Hospital.

    Material in this series is extremely fragile.

  3. Tyler Street Nursery records, 1883 -- 1909

    This series contains administrative records of the Tyler Street Day Nursery, which the BD took over in 1911. Most of the material is financial, including receipts and a cash account book. The series also contains a schedule of work for employees from 1904, which details daily tasks and responsibilities for all employees, from the head matron to the janitor.

    Material in this series is fragile.

  4. Administration and governance records, 1796 -- 1965

    This series contains meeting minutes by both the Board of Managers and Executive Committee of the BD; policies, guides, and manuals of instruction by various departments within the BD; and annual reports. Items of note in this series include an inventory of the BD from 1953 compiled by director Abbie Dunks; patient and service statistics from the 1950s; a guide to securing child services and placing unwed mothers in maternity homes; and a scrapbook of blank forms, comprising of a staff appointment application; clinic history sheets; requests for exams; and laboratory slips.

    There are several items from departments within the BD, such as Social Services and the Rehabilitation Institute, which continued as separate institutions after BD merged with Pratt Clinic in the 1940s.

    According to Dave Nathan's Guide to the NEMC Archives, the following item is missing:

    Minutes, 1910-1916

    Some material is fragile.

  5. Publications and historical materials, 1834 -- 1974

    This series contains publications by BD staff or about BD (excluding annual reports, which can be found in the Administration and governance series (MS214.003); student theses and articles from medical journals about BD; reports; poetry and historical papers about the BD, such as opening day addresses; a historical report of the BD from the 1898; and correspondence from World War I (1917). Also included is a listing of the original contributors to the Boston Dispensary in its founding year of 1796.

    According to Dave Nathan's Guide to the NEMC Archives, the following items are missing:

    Letter of resignation by Michael Davis, ca. 1920

    The Boston Dispensary in Perspective. By Michael Davis, ca. 1960

    NECH/BFH ground breaking and cornerstone, 1930-1931

    Course announcements, School for Laboratory Technicians, 1951-1964

  6. Financial records, 1860 -- 1965

    This series contains the financial and fund raising records of the Boston Dispensary: cash books; ledgers (of accounts receivable, as well deposits and withdrawals); and subscription forms related to fund raising. Also included is a ledger listing wills and bequests from 1883 to 1965.

    Material from this series are extremely fragile. The cash account ledger, 1922-1929, is restricted due to poor condition.

  7. Employment records, 1920 -- 1967

    This series contains the employment records of the BD dating from the early 1920s to the early 1960s. These personnel files contain the employee's original job application. In addition, almost all files contain correspondence (relating to job offers, salary increases, and promotions) and a Notice of Withdrawal detailing their departure from the BD.

    There is also an index of some employees. These index cards contain the employee's name; address; the departments they worked for; and positions held within those departments while at the BD (or, in some cases, NEMC). Also included are index cards listing members of various BD committees.

    Personnel records containing personally identifiable information are restricted for 75 years from the date of creation.

  8. X-Ray department records, 1911 -- 1966

    This series contains the general correspondence files of the New England Medical Center's Radiology medical directors. The files document personnel appointments, equipment, training programs, and primarily financial decisions. As such, there are contracts, surveys, reports, and budgets of various types of equipment, including deep therapy and cinereadiography. More recent records include information on the planning for the Department of Therapeutic Radiology.

  9. United Services Committee correspondence, 1947 -- 1965

    The bulk of this series contains general correspondence, but several folders also include financial and campaign information, as well as a study of the relationship between the Boston Dispensary and the United Community Services (UCS) conducted in the late-1950s.

  10. Clinical correspondence, agreements, and contracts, 1916 -- 1965

    This series contains correspondence of various clinics within the Dispensary, agreements between departments, and contracts. Of particular note is the 1930 agreement that established NEMC, and a set of blueprints for the Dispensary from 1929.

    Correspondence from the department of Psychiatry containing patient information has been restricted.

  11. Massachusetts Department of Public Health records, 1915 -- 1983

    This series contains administrative files and correspondence.

  12. Board of Trustees records, 1796 -- 1910
  13. Superintendent records, 1823 -- 1911
  14. Treasurer records, 1796 -- 1916
  15. District Physician records, 1797 -- 1931
  16. Apothecary records, 1798 -- 1883
  17. Memorabilia and miscellaneous, 1795 -- 1966

View Online Materials

Some of the materials from this collection are available online. Not all materials have necessarily been digitized.