When philanthropists convinced people to save lives

Young Charles Taylor drowned in June 1818. He was six years, seven months, and 10 days old, the son of Nathan and Sally Taylor. While a painting would keep only the sacred memory of his short life alive, American philanthropists and their associates abroad were working to keep others at risk of drowning alive in body and soul.

A watercolor painting of two parents, dressed in morning clothing, leaning on the grave of their child (Charles Taylor)
This watercolor was painted by Joseph Ayer in Peru, New York. The inscription reads: Sacred to the Memory of /Charles Taylor, /Son of Nathan & Sally Taylor, /Drowned June 21, /A.D.1818,. Aetatas (sic). 6 yrs. 7 mo. 10 days.

Saving drowning victims was a new charitable cause in the late 1700s. The movement began in Amsterdam in 1767 when a group of men created a society to rescue and resuscitate people from drowning—a common problem due to the city's many canals. Over the next decades, the idea spread, largely through the networks of medical men, around Europe, the British Isles, the Caribbean, and North America. In Britain, the charities promoting the rescue and resuscitation of victims of drowning and certain other types of accidents were typically known by the name "humane society," and that was the term Americans generally used too, long before it was used to refer to animal welfare organizations.

Americans began establishing humane societies in the 1780s. The first was set up in Philadelphia in 1780, the second in Boston in 1786; John Adams, John Hancock, and Paul Revere were among the members. People in Baltimore, Maryland; Charleston, South Carolina; Newburyport, Massachusetts; New York City, New York; Wilmington, Delaware; and elsewhere followed suit, although not all the groups flourished. Following the British model, the organizations worked by offering rewards of money, medals, or certificates to those who rescued or resuscitated drowning victims. They printed and disseminated information about the most up-to-date resuscitation methods, in public places along waterways, in newspapers, and elsewhere. They also shared stories about successes, and challenges, in annual reports and newspapers.

A silver medal engraved with a crest featuring boats and enclasped hands, the edge reads Humane Society of Massachusetts, Refuge, 1791
The Humane Society of Massachusetts bestowed this medal on a rescuer named Henry Austin Whitney "for courage and presence of mind for rescuing his mother and niece from drowning at Windsor Lock, Conn., October 30, 1852."

Only well-to-do white men served as trustees of the charities, but many others contributed time and effort to the cause. Most rescuers and most rescued people were laboring men or boys. African Americans were among the rescued and rescuers, and monetary rewards to them or for saving their lives were comparable to those for white rescuers and white lives. Women and girls aided in caring for people dragged from the water. Even very young children sometimes raised the alarm that someone was at risk of drowning. In a maritime world where many people could not swim, a watery grave was an ever-present danger, and saving lives entailed the involvement of many.

Along with relying on broad participation, the humane society movement fostered innovations. The Massachusetts Humane Society added a new dimension to its lifesaving endeavors by building huts along the state's coast to provide shelter for shipwrecked mariners. The transatlantic movement as a whole nurtured improvements in resuscitation techniques, with methods ranging from warming bodies, applying friction, and injecting tobacco smoke to administering chest compression. The societies printed information about the newest therapies and exchanged their materials to learn from one another. Humane societies also encouraged the development and improvement of lifesaving equipment such as life vests and lifeboats. Moreover, they pioneered in suicide prevention by focusing attention on self-destruction as a cause for some drowning incidents. In addition to the societies' efforts to recover would-be suicides from water and to resuscitate them as needed, clergymen involved with the movement ministered to suicidal souls who had been stopped in attempts to end their lives. In time, as their understandings of and approach to suicide evolved, members of the Massachusetts Humane Society led the formation of New England's first hospital devoted to mental health, eventually known as McLean Hospital.

A patent model of a wooden boat.
Patent model for a lifeboat, developed by Joseph Francis, 1841. Humane societies helped spark interest in building and improving lifeboats. Joseph Francis, who grew up in Massachusetts where attention to lifeboat technology was strong, was a noted builder of lifeboats in the 1800s.

Not all aspects of the cause succeeded. Some of the movement's techniques, such as tobacco enemas administered by bellows, are now rejected. Conditions at the mental hospitals, created in part due to the movement's support, drew censure in the 1800s and since. Yet by encouraging the contributions and innovations of many, humane societies' supporters worked to make the world safer in hopes that others would not suffer the heartache that Charles Taylor's parents did.

Amanda B. Moniz is the David M. Rubenstein Curator of Philanthropy in the Division of Home and Community Life.

The Philanthropy Initiative is made possible by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and David M. Rubenstein, with additional support by the Fidelity Charitable Trustees' Initiative, a grantmaking program of Fidelity Charitable.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255.