Origins: The Boston Home for Incurables

As a Boston nurse in the late 1800s, Cordelia Harmon saw many patients with chronic illnesses discharged from hospitals. As a result of their life circumstances, the economy, and unenlightened public policy, they were left without the financial resources to obtain the care they needed. Unable to be cared for at home and turned away from hospitals, these patients often ended up in area institutions for the indigent and criminally insane. Cordelia knew that although suffering from diseases and conditions without a cure, these individuals were not beyond hope and—more importantly—were not beyond help. She was determined to get them that help. Overcoming obstacles of gender and lack of social connections, Cordelia Harmon was able to raise the support necessary to offer a solution.

In 1881, The Boston Home for Incurables opened its doors in Brighton to nine chronically ill adults. Within a year, more than 100 applicants waited for one of the home’s eight available beds. Clearly, there was a desperate need for a facility that could provide these patients with basic medical care in a nurturing home.

Rev. Phillips Brooks

Early supporter Reverend Phillips Brooks of Trinity Church, Boston

In time, influential people took notice. The Reverend Phillips Brooks of Trinity Church called on his extensive personal network to help bring The Boston Home’s services to as many people as possible. He gathered a small but powerfully influential group of men and women and formed the Committee for the Establishment of The Boston Home for Incurables. By September 1884, a little more than a year after Cordelia Harmon’s death, the Committee raised the funds needed to purchase two acres of land with a sizeable house from the Codman Family of Dorchester. With a suitable location for an expanded facility, the Committee embraced Cordelia Harmon’s dream.

They appointed four prominent and highly respected Bostonians to head a corporation of 12 Trustees and 31 members: President Charles Codman, Vice President Francis Lowell, Clerk Godfrey Morse, and Treasurer Samuel Snelling. They established a standard for visionary leadership that continues to this day. With generous support from an influential community, The Boston Home was poised to succeed and grow—and it grew quickly. The Dorchester facility opened in February 1885 with 26 residents: 18 women and 8 men. By 1888, the number of residents had doubled, and one-third of the residents were children. Despite filling twice the original number of beds, demand still outpaced the home’s capacity. More than 200 names were on the waiting list.

The Boston Home’s nurturing environment provided its residents with much-needed dignity. Right from the start, The Boston Home not only emphasized improvement in the residents’ physical condition but also honored their desire to be productive members of society.

A Home Rather than a Hospital

In its early years, the Boston Home provided humane custodial care for people with disabilities, offering nutritious food, fresh air, simple maintenance, and pain relief. The Boston Home’s staff and volunteers found many creative ways to keep even the least mobile residents active and happy, including religious services, birthday parties, book groups, and singing lessons. Residents also had use of a sewing room, piano, library, and Braille typewriter. Trustees called on their social connections to bring in artists to provide cultural diversions.

The Need Grows

By the turn of the 20th century, need again outstripped the capacity of the original building. After two decades of advocating and raising money, the Board of Trustees realized its goal to expand the facilities to better accommodate its residents and offer space for those on the waiting list. After a year of construction, a new fireproof brick building—the same one that today serves as the Home’s main entrance—was completed in July of 1927. With a new building came a new focus: caring for women and children.

The Great Depression

The financial constraints brought on by the Depression of the 1930s hastened the move from the institution’s original mission as a charity. The Boston Home redefined itself as a medical resource, a private, nonprofit nursing home. Residents were now expected to contribute financially if they were able. Primarily due to the availability of insurance and the provisions of the Social Security Act of 1935, there was a proliferation of long-term care facilities, but The Boston Home stood out for its long-established tradition of providing compassionate, exceptional, and comprehensive care. The Trustees and staff continued to seek ways to better deliver on that plan.

An Evolving Focus

The Boston Home consistently sought the finest in medical care for its residents. While the earliest residents suffered mostly from stable joint and spinal problems that demanded little in the way of active nursing, new admissions tended to be for those with degenerative diseases that required more specialized and attentive treatment. Multiple Sclerosis, Muscular Dystrophy, and Parkinson’s were among the most prevalent conditions.

Treatment available to the residents was comparable to that of a hospital, but The Boston Home provided something a hospital could not: a supportive community offering productive activities and opportunity for personal growth. With new focus on medical and rehabilitative services, The Boston Home was now a place for residents to be productive and active. On-site classes for the children made life as normal as possible. Many older residents taught the material.

Continue to History Part 2