William B. Walsh; Launched Project Hope in Hospital Ship


William B. Walsh, a physician who founded the first peacetime floating hospital--which later became Project Hope, an international medical relief organization--has died. He was 76.

He died of cancer at his home in Bethesda, Md.

Walsh founded Project Hope, which stands for Health Opportunity for People Everywhere, in 1958 by convincing President Dwight D. Eisenhower to convert a Navy hospital ship, the Hope, for rendering medical aid to the world’s needy.

The presidential approval, plus $150 of Walsh’s own money, got the plans for remodeling the ship underway.

The ship sailed in 1960 from San Francisco to Indonesia, where it made its first stop at an island of 250,000 residents that had only two physicians. There were no medical facilities on the island.

Walsh got the idea for Project Hope from his World War II experiences in the Navy. He saw how people suffered during the fighting in the Pacific, and was one of the first physicians to treat Japanese civilians in Hiroshima after the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb there.


The Hope was retired in 1974, but Project Hope now operates more than 45 health education and humanitarian assistance programs in more than 20 countries.

In 1996, officials said Project Hope’s expenditures totaled more than $110 million, with more than 90 cents of each donated dollar going to aid. Less than 10 cents of each dollar went to administrative and fund-raising costs, officials said.

Walsh was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award, by President Ronald Reagan in 1987. He also was hailed by President Clinton, who applauded Walsh’s efforts “to teach Third World countries how to tend to their own needs.”

Walsh retired as Project Hope’s president and chief executive in 1992 and was succeeded by his son William B. Walsh Jr.

Another of his sons, John, also was an enthusiastic Project Hope recruit.

“One year we were milkmen and helped make milk out of seawater,” John Walsh recalled. “We had a reconstitution tank in the bottom of the ship where we desalinated the water. Then we had pasteurization and homogenization processes to make milk for the ship and the public health programs on shore.”

In addition to the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the senior Walsh received a papal knighthood from Pope Paul VI, the French National Order of Merit and more than a dozen honorary degrees.

A native of Brooklyn, N.Y., Walsh graduated from St. John’s University in 1940 and the Georgetown University medical school in 1943.

He is survived by his wife, Helen; three sons; a sister, and six grandchildren.