Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ellis Island Hospital Complex

1) View of Hospital Complex from Main Island (Elizabeth Baik and Zoe Ginsburg, 2009). 2) Aerial view of Ellis Island Complex. A through F are hospital complex buildings. 1999 ( ellis/index.html). 3) Inspection Line at Ellis Island. (Source:

Directions: Take the Ferry from Battery Park or New Jersey Liberty State Park

Medical facilities were needed for America’s biggest immigration center to protect both the health of immigrants, and more importantly, of the nation. The first hospital building opened on Ellis Island in 1902. It was to become the largest, most modern hospital in New York. The contagious disease hospital had 18 wards for particular contagious diseases, and there was a psychiatric hospital as well. Two additional islands were built to house what would grow to be a 22-building hospital complex1.

Upon arrival, each immigrant was inspected by a doctor of the Public Health Service (PHS), and those with visible health or mental problems pulled out of the line for further inspection2. If they possessed a disease that warranted deportation, they were either sent to the hospital at the patient’s expense or immediately deported to their home country.

Along with a physical diagnosis, each prospective entrant was inspected for signs of mental deficiency and submitted to intelligence testing. Deportation also awaited those who were diagnosed as “feeble-minded.” Diagnosis of feeblemindedness was highly subjective and often thinly veiled attempts to keep those deemed undesirable out. Diagnostic tools went from the outrageously inaccurate (those that relied on language competency) to extremely subjective (ability to do puzzles in a certain amount of time and facial expressions). Eugenicists formed part of the ranks of the PHS3. Inevitably poor Eastern Europeans, Jews, and Italians were feebleminded more often than Western Europeans or those traveling in 2nd or 1st class.

The diseases that warranted deportation also changed according to the political climate surrounding immigration. The number of conditions requiring deportation, including diseases, grew 4. As public opinion surrounding immigration changed, so did the criteria used to evaluate possible entrants on the basis of health. Healthiness and medicine are not static categories, but rather are influenced by and further contribute to hegemonies of physical normalcy and morality, particularly race-based state projects5. The medical exam became “aligned with the forces demanding,” for example “fit industrial citizens, usually to the benefit of industry” 6. Public health was used as a norm with which to enact differential rights and to mold spatial geographies.

Immigrant bodies were seen not only as carriers of disease, but of moral degeneracy. Class, race, and urban problems were conflated and projected onto immigrant bodies. Exclusion of those convicted of “crimes of moral turpitude”, prostitutes, and “the mentally retarded, contract laborers, persons with "dangerous and loathsome contagious disease," paupers, polygamists, and the "feebleminded" and "insane," as well as Chinese laborers…articulated concern over the admission of real and potential public charges as well as late nineteenth-century beliefs, derived from Social Darwinism and criminal anthropology, that the national body had to be protected from the contaminants of social degeneracy7. Therefore, those unlikely to find work were denied entry. Women were similarly instructed on how to care for their children and “good, American ways”8.

Ellis Island Hospital provided opportunities to women of a certain class, while simultaneously reinforcing female dependence. Many incomers were understandably uncomfortable being examined by male doctors, and the PHS began hiring female physicians in 19149. At the same time, women traveling alone were detained until a male family member was able to collect them, as they were assumed to become public wards without the support of a male family member10.

After decades of neglect, the hospital buildings are currently undergoing stabilization and renovation. They are destined to house non-profit organizations, or a conference center, not a museum dedicated to this bittersweet chapter in United States history11.

- Elizabeth Baik and Zoe Ginsburg

1 Conway, Lorie. Forgotten Ellis Island. (pp. 7-9). New York: Harper Collins, 2007.

2 Conway, Lorie (pp. 32-35).

3 Conway, Lorie (pp. 121-128).

4 Conway, Lorie (pp. 31)

5 Shaw, Nayan. Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Berkeley, Los Angelos, London: University of California Press, 2001.

6 Fairchild, Amy. Science at the Borders: Immigrant Medical Inspection and the Shaping of the

Modern Industrial Labor Force. (pp. 7). Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press,


7 Ngai, Mai M. “The Strange Career of the Illegal Alien: Immigration Restriction and Deportation Policy in the United States, 1921-1965.” Law and History Review 21.1 (2003). Available from [].

8 Conway, Lorie (pp. 91).

9 University at Buffalo—the State University of New York. (Jan. 21 2003). Doctors at the Gate:

The U.S. Public Health Service at Ellis Island: An Exhibit commemorating the

Bicentennial of the U.S. Public Health Service. Retrieved from [].

10 Moreno, Barry. Ellis Island. (pp. 42). Charleston, Arcadia, 2003.

11 National Park Service. Ellis Island Development Concept Plan. Available from [].

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