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Click to enlarge Creating The Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts

In 1785, a group of Boston citizens met several times at the "Bunch of Grapes" tavern to consider the formation of an organization modeled on the British Royal Humane Society. They were concerned about the needless deaths resulting from shipwrecks and drownings and wanted to find ways to save lives.

Formally established in 1786, The Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts elected James Bowdoin, the governor of Massachusetts and the founder of Bowdoin College, to be its first president. The other original trustees were Rev. John Clarke, Dr. Aaron Dexter, Rev. Dr. Simeon Howard, Rev. Dr. John Lathrop, Rev. Samuel Parker, Dr. Isaac Rand, Dr. John Warren, Dr. Thomas Welsh, Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse and Judge Oliver Wendell. In 1791, The Humane Society was formally incorporated in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

From the outset, The Humane Society focused on recognizing selfless lifesaving rescues and preventing such tragedies. It established an awards system with a financial stipend for those who risked their lives to save others and presented its first award in 1786. By sponsoring public lectures and publishing research studies, it encouraged innovative lifesaving techniques and resuscitation measures. Its resources financed a number of firsts in the country: lifesaving huts and rescue boats along the coast, swimming instruction for Boston public school students, instructional posters on resuscitation methods and funding to create Massachusetts General Hospital, McLean Hospital and the Boston Lying-In Hospital.

Medal Awards Program Click to enlarge

The Medal Awards Program was instituted before the country had such public safety organizations as the US Coast Guard or local emergency response capabilities. The medal serves to provide recognition for the rescue effort, and the accompanying financial stipend acknowledges that individuals take extreme personal and economic risks to themselves and their families in attempting to save the lives of others.

Andrew Sloane received the first medal in 1786 for saving a boy who broke through ice on a mill pond. He was given 28 shillings. The program evolved into three medal categories based on the severity of the rescue situation: silver, bronze and certificate. The Trustees continue to make a large number of awards for rescues from drowning, but today they also consider a variety of emergency situations such as vehicle and airplane accidents, fires and dog attacks where life is at risk.

Lifesaving Mission

The Humane Society's role in saving lives along the Massachusetts coast is a unique and compelling story. Its work served as a model for the US Life-Saving Service and ultimately the US Coast Guard.

When The Humane Society was founded, survivors of shipwrecks might reach shore but often perished because the isolated beaches lacked any protective shelter. To address this problem, The Humane Society established huts and outfitted them with firewood and provisions to sustain survivors until local townspeople came to their rescue. The first hut was placed at Scituate Beach in 1787. By 1806, there were 18 huts along the coast and on Nantucket and Martha's Vineyard.

The Humane Society recognized that even more people could be saved if boats could be launched to go through the surf. Intrigued by a new design for a lifesaving boat, the Trustees provided funds for the construction of the first lifeboat in America. It was completed in 1807 and housed in Cohasset. With additional funding provided by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, the number of lifeboats and boathouses along the coast expanded.

Click to enlarge By 1871, when the US Life-Saving Service (USLSS) was created, The Humane Society was responsible for 78 lifeboats and 92 huts, boathouses and other structures. Volunteers manned these facilities and all were eligible for medal awards. Many of these volunteer leaders were the first to be hired for the new USLSS. For several years, the USLSS and The Humane Society co-existed and often competed to be the first on the scene of a disaster. During major storms, their joint efforts meant that more lives were saved because neither organization could respond to all of the needs.

In 1915, the USLSS and the Revenue Cutter Service were merged to form the US Coast Guard. The Humane Society continued to maintain lifeboats and lifesaving stations along the Massachusetts coast through the 1930's and disposed of the last of its lifesaving equipment in 1946. As the US Coast Guard assumed more responsibility along the coast, The Humane Society shifted its attention to lifesaving needs at rivers, ponds and beaches and provided life-buoys that could be thrown to individuals who had fallen in or were in distress. During the post-World War II period, the need for The Humane Society to deliver such services declined as the public sector assumed greater responsibility.

A cooperative relationship between the US Coast Guard and The Humane Society was established in 2002 in a Memorandum of Understanding, affirming the shared history of the two institutions and their commitment to improving safety on the waters.

Training and Education

Preventing tragedies on the water has always been a part of The Humane Society's lifesaving mission. In 1798, The Society built a bathhouse on the Charles River because many Harvard students drowned while bathing in the river. In the 1800's, swimming lessons were provided to Boston public school students and a swimming school was established.

From the early 1900's to the 1970's, The Humane Society sponsored swimming instruction for children. Working with the Red Cross and YMCA's, it hired instructors and conducted lessons at local Y facilities. This practice expanded to include nonprofit camp facilities during the summer. In addition to swimming instruction, courses were also offered in canoeing, boating and lifesaving. Over time, the nonprofit organizations assumed responsibility for these programs, and The Humane Society moved on to other initiatives.

In the mid-1960's, grants were made to Hurricane Island Outward Bound to build search and rescue craft for use in their youth training and development programs. The Humane Society recently established a relationship with the US Coast Guard Auxiliary, whose volunteers deliver extensive boating safety instruction programs to the general public. The Auxiliary received funds for the purchase of computers with screen projection capabilities, thereby improving the efficiency and quality of their course offerings.

Medical Research and Health Sciences

From the beginning, The Humane Society recognized that improved methods were needed to resuscitate drowning victims and to treat survivors. It sponsored public lectures, published research papers and offered a premium in 1799 for the collection of facts about yellow fever. Some of its early treatises advised blowing smoke into the lungs of drowning victims. This advice later evolved into the Prone Pressure Method of Resuscitation that could also be used in cases of gas poisoning and electric shock.

The Humane Society also played an important role in the establishment of hospitals in Boston. Its grant in 1796 helped to establish the Boston Dispensary, a foundling hospital. In 1818, the trustees made a $5000 challenge grant to help start Massachusetts General Hospital with half directed to the hospital for the sick and the other half for a hospital for insane persons (McLean Hospital) on the condition that another $20,000 be obtained from others for the same purposes. Its support in 1832 to establish the Boston Lying-In Hospital for Women was similarly conditional on additional funds being secured.

Its role in medical research was actively revived in the 1970's with support of The Medical Foundation for research fellowships. Other grants supported studies on cardiopulmonary resuscitation, hypothermia and infant resuscitation. The Poison Information Center at Children's Hospital and the Burns Trauma Center at Brigham & Women's Hospital also received funds. More recently, The Humane Society helped to equip the Boston Med Flight helicopters with defibrillators and to install portable ultrasound equipment in the emergency rooms at five Boston hospitals.

Today, The Humane Society carries on the mission envisioned by its founders. It recognizes those who voluntarily risk their lives to save others and seeks to prevent accident, injury and death primarily on the waters.




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The Humane Society of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts  
51 Grove Street, Suite A  ·  Chestnut Hill, MA 02467  
Tel. (617) 232-6242