The Prouty Garden at Boston Children's Hospital was endowed in 1956 by Olive Higgins Prouty, in memory of her two daughters, Anne and Olivia, whom she lost in childhood. It was meant to serve for the enjoyment of the children at the hospital, forever.
The garden has it origins in 1953, when William Wolbach, then the hospital’s president, encouraged Olive Higgins Prouty, the well-known author and poet, to create a memorial to two of her children on the hospital’s property. She hired the Olmsted Brothers design firm, known for designing such gems as the Fresh Pond and New Orleans’s Audubon Park, and personally oversaw the selection of plants, trees, and sculptures.
Prouty also sought assurance from Wolbach that the garden would endure as long as there were patients to enjoy it —or, to borrow a phrase from the hospital’s more contemporary motto, until every child is well. His answer should echo in the ears of today’s hospital board: “I cannot imagine anyone having an opinion other than that the garden is a great asset . . . [a] necessary contrast to the institutionalized impersonality of the hospital bricks and mortar, and the stress of pain and uncertainty.”
There are promises to keep.
Olive Higgins Prouty
In 1882, Olive Higgins was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, the youngest of the four children of Katherine Chapin and Milton Prince Higgins. Olive’s family was one of the most prominent families in Worcester. Her father helped develop and construct Worcester Polytechnic Institute while her mother, Katherine, founded the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) and advocated for the PTA in many states throughout her life.
From high school on, Olive knew that she wanted to be a writer. She graduated from Smith College in 1904, with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Literature, determined to start a writing career and earn her own living. She married Lewis Prouty in 1907 and they moved to their home to Brookline, Massachusetts in 1913.
Olive feared that marriage would end her hopes of creating a writing career for herself, but Lewis was supportive of her ambition and encouraged her to take writing courses at Radcliffe. He introduced her to the editor who accepted her first stories. Olive’s first novel was published in 1913, and by 1920 she had published three novels and a book of short stories. Between her husband’s income, her own writing, and an inheritance from her father, the Proutys were quite prosperous.
The Proutys had four children – Richard, Jane, Anne, and Olivia. Two of them, Anne and Olivia, died at young ages. Anne died shortly after she was born in 1919. Olivia was born in 1922 and died of encephalitis in 1923. In 1925, Olive suffered a nervous breakdown, in part because of Olivia’s death and was treated at the Riggs Foundation in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
Olive Higgins Prouty’s novel, Now, Voyager, inspired by her experience of breakdown and recovery, was made into a movie with Bette Davis as the star. Stella Dallas, her feminist melodrama, was adapted into a stage play in 1924, and served as a basis for three films. The 1937 version starred Barbara Stanwyck and was nominated for two Academy Awards while the 1990 version, titled Stella, starred Bette Midler.
Obeying her social conscience, Olive Higgins Prouty donated most of the money she made from her writing to charity and she became well known for her philanthropic works. She met the poet Sylvia Plath when she endowed Smith College with a scholarship for “promising young writers.” Olive Prouty had a complex, personal relationship with Sylvia Plath and Olive paid for the medical expenses from the poet’s unsuccessful 1953 suicide attempt. It is believed that Sylvia Plath used Olive Higgins Prouty as the basis for her satirical character “Philomena Guinea” in her 1963 novel, The Bell Jar.
On March 24, 1974, Olive Higgins Prouty died in Brookline, Massachusetts. She is remembered as a transitional woman between women’s suffrage and women’s liberation. Her short stories and ten novels illustrate how American women managed to preserve integrity in their lives despite the stifling roles that society assigned to them.
Before the Garden
In 1914, Children’s Hospital moved from Huntington Avenue to its present location on Longwood Avenue, a $120,000 three-acre site on the former Ebenezer Francis Farm where “the air was purer and the noise and jar less.” Several ward buildings were constructed to house medical and surgical patients in the field behind what is now the landmark-status protected Hunnewell Building.
These “cottage wards” (sometimes called “chicken coops”) were designed to maximize air and light and to minimize the spread of infectious diseases. Each ward floor normally had twenty beds, and the buildings also contained small isolation rooms, treatment rooms, and a laboratory and kitchen. In front of the Hunnewell Building, specially bred cows grazed to provide safe, tuberculosis-free milk for the infants and young pediatric patients. A central open courtyard contained one small shack for airing mattresses between admissions, an early forerunner of infection control procedures.
This open courtyard area, the present site of the beloved Prouty Garden, served as the recreational grounds for patients, families, nurses, doctors, medical students, and other hospital staff. Recreational activity was vibrant and varied. Beginning in the 1920’s, Circus Day was a highly celebrated annual event that featured circus elephants and horses to delight the children.
In addition to serving as the location for the circus, the grounds were the occasional home to traveling rodeos and cowboys. Famous personalities frequented the hospital grounds to entertain and cheer the children and staff, including Babe Ruth and Will Rogers, to name but a few. The hospital also held Donation Day functions on the grounds that were part of the fund-raising activities. In the late 1930’s these included charitable events such as puppet shows and big-band concerts.