Helen Cossitt Juilliard and the Floating Hospital

Print More

Scenes of the Floating Hospital, which offered revolutionary care for sick children and their mothers. Submitted photos

Frederick and Catherine Cossitt had four children. The oldest was Helen Marcellus Cossitt who married Augustus D. Juilliard in 1877. Augustus, like Frederick, was a self-made men who made immense wealth in the dry goods business as well as banking and insurance. By 1895 Augustus was one of New York City’s most prominent and wealthy citizens.

In 1903 Helen and Augustus purchased the mansion at 11 West 57th St. in New York City from an estate for $215,000. In today’s dollars that would be more than $5,000,000. Since Helen and Augustus were living across the street from this new purchase, they decided to have their new purchase torn down and a new mansion built for them. 

The Julliards never had any children and in addition to extensive traveling, Helen was a well-known philanthropist. In fact, she was more well-known for her philanthropy than her lavish lifestyle. When she passed away in 1916, Helen left an estate worth $5 million from which charities and educational institutions benefited greatly. 

One cause that captured Helen’s heart was the poor and underprivileged children and their mothers in New York City. The life of the poor during the late 19th and early 20th centuries was truly deplorable. The streets and tenements were dirty, rat infested and exceptionally unhealthy places to live. A million horses, burning coal, and crowded conditions created a lung-damaging stew that doubled as air. For children already stressed by malnutrition and a lack of child labor laws, sea air was one of the few remedies available to combat widespread juvenile asthma.

The Floating Hospital traced its origins to 1866 with rented barges to its first hospital ship in 1872. Despite her wealth, for years Helen managed the Lincoln Hospital and Home and around 1895 gave the St. John’s Guild its first hospital boat, the Helen C. Juilliard. 

The primary role of healthcare was relief, through the distribution of milk and the assurance of a monthly bath, both of which were luxuries unavailable to most poor families in the post-Civil War era. Opium, laudanum, and spirits were widely used as remedies. Beer and bread were the basics of many children’s diets. By taking these child laborers and their moms out onto the sea for a day, the hospital provided a respite, albeit brief, from the miseries of daily life.

The ship began its voyages at a time when pediatrics was still an emerging branch of medicine. Before the mid-nineteenth century, there were no pediatricians, no children’s hospitals, and very few parents brought their ailing children to physicians. Instead, family members, midwives, and community healers nursed sick youngsters.

The Floating Hospital was a revolutionary concept in the late 1800s, turning the routine occurrence of quarantine barges into a health excursion that combined medical care, healthy eating, and entertainment into one experience. Aboard the Floating Hospital, patients and visitors enjoyed puppet shows, dancing, sing-a-longs, art classes, games, celebrity appearances and movies. They snacked and lunched as they spied breathtaking views of sea and city. No wonder it was nicknamed the Happiest Place on Earth. In the wake of the success of the first Floating Hospital, the first Helen C. Juilliard ship launched on May 4, 1899.

The first land-based pediatric hospital was the Seaside Hospital of Staten Island that tied together sea excursions and a facility for longer-term care and infant deliveries. Improvements in living conditions in the early days of the twentieth century were tempered with better diagnosed maladies, and an understanding of the importance of hygiene, prevention and health education. Modern medicine had arrived, and The Floating Hospital took pride in being at the forefront of all these advances.

Helen’s health began failing in 1915 and on April 2, 1916, after a long illness, she died in the house on West 57th Street. Just before her death in 1916, another hospital boat (Helen C. Juilliard II) was launched in Wilmington, Delaware in 1915.

As you pass by the Frederick H. Cossitt library today, pause to think of the legacy of this amazing Granby family.