convalescent: /,känvə-’lesənt/ a person who is recovering after an illness or operation
This isn’t a word we use all that often. Maybe that’s because modern medicine has shortened the recovery period for many of the most common ailments. Serious diseases can now be treated with relative ease. But it wasn’t all that long ago when those recovering from stubborn illnesses or even minor surgical procedures would require weeks, if not months, of bedrest within hospital wards. And then there were diseases that doctors were unable to cure. The only prescription — if you even want to call it that — was lots of fresh air, sunshine, and rest.
Which is where Wellesley comes in. For years — beginning as early as the mid-19th Century — Wellesley was a popular destination for wealthy Boston residents who were struggling to recover from lingering illnesses. A few weeks in the country, far removed from the smoke-filled air and sewage-tainted water, might help improve their health.
The same reasoning explains why Boston Children’s Hospital chose Wellesley in which to establish a facility where its young patients could recover from crippling diseases. In fact, over 25,000 children from all over the region — but specifically Boston — spent anywhere from a few weeks to upwards of twelve months at the convalescent home here between 1875 and 1959.
Before I delve into the history of the Convalescent Home in Wellesley — which was located for most of those years at the eastern edge of the current Babson College campus — something needs to be said about the origins of Children’s Hospital. After all, it wasn’t like the Convalescent Home was a stand-alone institution where sick children who were deemed incurable were sent to live. Rather, it was a crucial component of the hospital — one could think of it as an extension of the hospital’s wards — that was part of the treatment for many young patients.
The establishment of Boston Children’s Hospital actually only predates that of the Convalescent Home by several years. But the idea of a hospital devoted to the care of children goes back decades earlier. For years, the city’s civic leaders and physicians toiled with trying to find a way to combat the crippling diseases and high mortality rates of the young. In particular, the children of the poor were in desperate need of care:
“Confined, as they often are, in close courts, narrow alleys, damp cellars, or filthy apartments, which the sunshine never cheers, nor the fresh air purifies; lying on uncomfortable and untidy beds, scantily covered from the cold; insufficiently fed with innutritious and unwholesome food, and tended by rough and careless hands, they become an easy prey to sickness in its worst forms, and sometimes waste away and die without even the alleviation of soothing words.” — Annual Report of The Children’s Hospital (1869)
But it wasn’t only poor children who needed assistance. Sons and daughters of wealthier families could also benefit from a medical facility devoted to treating the young:
“Even among the poor of a better class, — whose small rooms are neat and cleanly, whose hearts are warm with natural affection, and who reluct at no self-denials for their sick or wounded children, — the hard and incessant toil, that is necessary to keep their families from absolute pauperism, prevents the possibility of devoting to the little sufferers the time and care which they require. Painful as the deprivation is to the mother or sister, they cannot leave their work to give the needed medicine, or apply the proper dressing, at the right time; nor can they watch all night after the exhausting labors of the day.” — Annual Report of The Children’s Hospital (1869)
So when Boston Children’s Hospital first opened its doors in 1869, there was great hope that it could alleviate much of the suffering that had long-plagued so many families throughout the region.
And that it did. But it wasn’t like patients were cured of their ills the moment they were admitted. There was still a long road to recovery. Many children even died despite the best efforts of the doctors and nurses — which was part of the reason that the Convalescent Home was established in the first place. Perhaps a few weeks in the country would give those children a greater chance of overcoming their illnesses. (In addition, the demand for treatment at the hospital was far greater than the number of beds available. By sending those children who would otherwise be spending weeks to months in the hospital’s wards to the Convalescent Home, it was able to treat many, many more patients.)
The first Convalescent Home actually was located in Weston and was nothing more than a small house capable of holding up to six patients at a time. It had been outfitted with the necessary supplies, as well as toys and decorations to keep the children entertained, and was staffed by a nurse and one of the members of the Ladies’ Aid Association (a group of women, many of whom were the wives of the directors of the hospital) whose responsibilities included managing all aspects of the Convalescent Home.
By the end of the summer of 1874, a total of 19 children (each spending an average of three weeks and showing significant improvements in their health) had been treated at the Home.
The following summer — actually from late spring until mid-autumn — the Convalescent Home opened once again, this time, however, at 12 Wellesley Avenue near Wellesley Square in a farmhouse large enough to provide care for up to a dozen patients at a time.
Now some of you might be wondering why on Earth they wouldn’t locate the Convalescent Home in the outskirts of town. Remember, however, that back in the late 19th Century, this area — even this close to Wellesley Square — was little more than bucolic countryside.
The success of the Convalescent Home was immediate:
“The influence of the pure country air has been beneficial in every case, serving to complete a cure already begun, and having a favorable effect even in cases beyond recovery. But, even if its remedial power were less than it actually is, the delight which the children feel — many of whom have never been beyond the narrow and gloomy courts and alleys of the city — at finding themselves in the open air, in the broad and sweet fields, amidst flowers and birds, and the pleasant sights and sounds of the country, would be an ample return for all that the Home has cost.” — Annual Report of The Children’s Hospital (1876)
And so each year, from May until October, Children’s Hospital sent to Wellesley as many of its recovering patients as it possibly could. It’s important to note, however, the separation that existed between the hospital and the Convalescent Home. Although the doctors and nurses of the hospital decided which children were granted a trip to the country, the Convalescent Home was run entirely by the Ladies’ Aid Association, whose efforts were absolutely crucial because the Convalescent Home — just like Children’s Hospital — was free for those patients whose parents couldn’t afford the care and thus relied almost entirely on donations.
One of the most generous gifts the Convalescent Home ever received was given in 1890 when Horatio Hollis Hunnewell — Wellesley’s greatest benefactor and one of the directors of Children’s Hospital — donated 32 acres of open farmland at the southern edge of Wellesley on Forest Street. (Half of the property actually extended over the town border into Needham.) This gift, along with money raised by the Ladies’ Aid Association, enabled the construction of a larger Convalescent Home — the impetus being that eight years earlier, Children’s Hospital moved into a new building on Huntington Avenue that allowed the doctors to treat many more patients and thus required additional space for its convalescents as well.
To say that the new Convalescent Home on Forest Street was an improvement over the house at 12 Wellesley Avenue would be a vast understatement. Designed by Henry S. Hunnewell and George R. Shaw — the same architects of Wellesley’s Town Hall and who both happened to be related to Horatio Hunnewell) — the new home probably could have been mistaken for Children’s Hospital itself.
But, alas, the new Convalescent Home stood for only eleven years. In 1903, a fire caused by a defective chimney reduced the entire structure to rubble. Miraculously, no children were injured in the blaze.
(Despite the lack of any casualties, the Wellesley Fire Department received significant criticism after responding to the fire nearly 20 minutes after the first alarm was sounded. Furthermore, once the firefighters arrived, it was reported that they didn’t do enough to stop the fire from spreading and even refused to accept any assistance from the Needham Fire Department. Although the firefighters from Wellesley blamed poor water pressure for their lack of effectiveness, this was not the only time in the early history of the Wellesley Fire Department that it was called out for its poor record.)
Two years later, in 1905, construction of a new building for the Convalescent Home — although not nearly as impressive — was completed on the site of the old one.
So what was day-to-day life like for the children at the Convalescent Home? Well, for those that weren’t bedridden — even those on crutches and in wheelchairs — their time was spent mostly outside playing games and enjoying the sunshine and fresh air. There was even a pet donkey that was hooked up to a cart so that boys and girls could take rides “as far as the donkey would take them.”
If the weather was not great — which was often a problem after 1894, when the Convalescent Home began operating year-round — there were large indoor playrooms and covered terraces. The responsibility then fell on the nurses to do what they could to keep the children active.
This included — perhaps to the disappointment of the children — establishing a school within the Convalescent Home. But don’t forget, some of them were stuck there for upwards of a year. This absence from their regular school would have created significant problems if they were unable to keep up with their studies.
But despite all of these activities, living at the Convalescent Home must have gotten pretty dull. Which is why the holidays were so important. They were a chance for churches, social groups, and organizations from the various schools in Wellesley to visit the home and entertain the children with ice cream socials, puppet shows, theatrical productions, and concerts. And every July 4th, the Wellesley Post of the American Legion would put on a fireworks display. It was the least they could do to provide a moment of joy for these sick children.
At this point, I should stress once again that even though a large proportion of the children lived at the Convalescent Home for many months, this wasn’t an institution where sick or disabled children were sent to live out their childhoods. Their admissions were entirely temporary with a shuttle from the hospital arriving each week to drop off more patients and pick up those children who were better. Early on, this shuttle was actually a special trolley sent from Boston to Wellesley Hills, where a horse-drawn barge met the children and brought them to the Convalescent Home. This trolley and barge system was phased out in 1918 when the Convalescent Home purchased an ambulance that could take the kids back and forth between Wellesley and Boston.
And should any children not respond to treatment at the Convalescent Home or their condition worsen, they were sent back to the Hospital or to a separate institution for permanent living. (Although it’s possible that a few children could have died while at the Convalescent Home, there doesn’t seem to be any information that suggests there were burials on site.)
That said, the Convalescent Home had a remarkable success rate in helping children recover from debilitating illnesses — specifically, rheumatic fever and tuberculosis. Part of that success against the latter of those diseases was the result of a open-air therapy program where the children would spend both day and night in unplastered wooden shacks with sliding walls so as to bring in as much fresh air as possible. At first, this treatment was nothing more than an experiment — a single 40’x20’ structure was constructed off Seaver Street in 1903, in the months following the devastating fire, when the Convalescent Home was temporarily located at 5 Park Avenue in the former house of L. Allen Kingsbury. (The home was razed in the early 2000s.)
If living in a shack in the winter sounds cold and uncomfortable, it was. But at least they had lots of warm clothes!
“At night each child wore, under the blankets, woollen undergarments, flannel nightgown, bed-shoes, and hood, and was finally put into a big flannel bag, which was fastened round the neck.” — Annual Report of the Convalescent Home (1904)
But this experiment was so successful that when the new building for the Convalescent Home was completed in 1905, the entire back wing was devoted to this open-air treatment of tuberculosis. (See floorplan above.)
By the 1920s — following the development of a vaccine for tuberculosis — the Convalescent Home was able to phase out the shack system and focus its energies on helping children recover from other illnesses. The shacks were therefore converted into an expansive solarium for patients primarily suffering from rheumatic heart disease.
In addition, a significant physical therapy unit was installed within the Convalescent Home.
The mid-1940s marked the beginning of the end of the Convalescent Home, when Children’s Hospital sought to consolidate its treatment and convalescent facilities. By that time, doctors understood the interdependence of treatment and recovery. It just didn’t make sense to keep the facilities ten miles apart. In addition, with the further development of antibiotics and more advanced surgical procedures, the period of convalescence was significantly shorter than it used to be and so fewer patients were being sent out to Wellesley.
The Convalescent Home was therefore forced to evolve once again — this time focusing almost exclusively on young children with cerebral palsy, and beginning in 1950, both pediatric and adult patients with polio.
But in 1959, what treatment programs remained in Wellesley were moved to Boston and the entire property was sold to the Babson Institute. The front portion of the former convalescent home is now a student dormitory with administrative offices located in the rear of the building.
Even though the Convalescent Home no longer exists today, Boston Children’s Hospital continues to be one of the top medical centers in the world. In fact, the most recent U.S. News & World Report ranking of the nation’s hospitals lists Children’s Hospital as #1 in seven out of ten specialities — everything from neonatal care to pediatric cardiology.
But, surely, Children’s Hospital couldn’t have developed into the facility we now know had it not been for the Convalescent Home in Wellesley. It didn’t just give the hospital the ability to treat more patients, it also gave doctors and medical researchers opportunities to explore innovative treatments for once-crippling diseases.
- Norfolk County Registry of Deeds
- Annual Reports of The Children’s Hospital (1869 – 1898)
- Annual Reports of the Convalescent Home of The Children’s Hospital, Boston (1899 – 1947)
- Reports of the Children’s Medical Center (1946 – 1955)
- Harvard College Class of 1869 Second Triennial Report of the Secretary (1875)
- Atlas of Norfolk County, Massachusetts by W.A. Sherman (1876)
- Atlas of Wellesley, Massachusetts by George W. Stadley & Co. (1897)
- ‘The Convalescent Home at Wellesley Hills, Mass. — Help for Helpless Children’ by Edith A. Sawyer in the February 20th, 1897 issue of The Churchman
- Boston Daily Globe: 21 January 1903; 22 January 1903; 16 January 1937
- History of the Town of Wellesley, Massachusetts by Joseph E. Fiske (1917)
- Wellesley Townsman: 17 April 1925; 5 April 1929; 17 April 1931; 12 May 1933; 19 February 1959
- U.S. News & World Report rankings of children’s hospitals, 2013-14 [accessed in November 2013]
- Google Dictionary [convalescent]