When the original Ellis Island buildings were in operation (made of
wood, that burned to the ground during the fire of 1897), a small
infirmary, also made of wood, was used to tend to the sick immigrants. It
was not equipped to deal with very complicated cases or a large number of
illnesses. When the 1897 fire occurred, the infirmary burned down too.
Until a new hospital could be built, patients at Ellis Island had to be
shipped off to "nearby" hospitals, at least for while. These hospitals
were not very eager to take in these patients, and eventually stopped
taking them. Perhaps this had to do with anti-immigrant feelings that
existed at the time.
The first Ellis Island "general" hospital
opened in 1902 and had one hundred and twenty beds, which later grew to
two hundred and seventy-five beds. Within this hospital there existed four
operating rooms, a delivery room, and a morgue.
OPERATING ROOM AT ELLIS ISLAND HOSPITAL
Courtesy of the Library of Congress.
The hospital was generally very busy, seeing a wide variety of
diseases from different parts of the world. It was not well equipped,
however, to handle the mentally ill, and after two mentally ill patients
committed suicide, a "Psychopathic Pavilion" was built to handle these
types of cases.
In 1911 a larger medical facility was built--this building had four
hundred and fifty beds and was meant to take care of those immigrants with
contagious diseases. This was quite a large hospital for its time. It had
numerous wards; each one handled a different set of conditions. Although
there were bigger hospitals than this one, no other hospital saw as many
variety of conditions as this one, from the most simple to rare tropical
There were a number of conditions and diseases
that would cause an immigrant to be deported, e.g. trachoma, a
disease of the eyelids. However, most immigrants with "Class A"
conditions were allowed to be cured in the hospital at their own
expense, thus negating the need for deportation. Sometimes, aid
organizations, such as the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) made
it possible for an immigrant to stay at the hospital until cured.
The Red Cross ran a library on Ellis Island for
the immigrants, as well as a school for them.
There were a number of children that needed to
remain at the hospital for an extended period of time, so the
presence of a library and school was very useful.
Student were taught the "three R's" and also
learned about proper hygiene and manners, etc. So this was a good
opportunity to indoctrinate the children into American culture and
teach them how to behave as good citizens.
photo: Readers at the Ellis Island