Ellis Island: Hospital for Contagious Disease


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A significant number of Americans today (40-50%) can trace their ancestry to immigrants who first set foot in the USA on Ellis Island. Twelve million people were processed through Ellis Island in its 60 year history. All had to pass a brief medical and psychological screening before proceeding into NYC or New Jersey.


Those who showed signs of an ailment were marked with chalk at the Main Arrivals Building and were detained in the island’s hospital for further evaluation. The hospital complex sat on land created from excavation of the NYC subway tunnels. The General Hospital was just across the ferry basin from the arrivals building while the Contagious Disease Hospital was furthest away and separated by another body of water to prevent the spread of disease.


I was recently invited on an extended tour of the hospital complex as part of a focus group for Save Ellis Island. Save Ellis Island is the non-profit fundraising group seeking to restore or arrest the decay of Ellis Island’s south side. They receive no federal money and depend on the income from the tours they conduct to fund the preservation.


The Ellis Island Hospital was designed like Johns Hopkins Hospital, with separate facilities for the General Hospital and the Contagious Disease Hospital. When the general hospital first opened in 1902, the federal government contracted out the infectious cases to New York City’s hospital. As immigration increased, the city’s  resources were overwhelmed.


The Ellis Island Contagious Disease hospital opened in 1912. The General Hospital’s objective was to patch immigrants up so they could become workers. The Contagious Disease Hospital was to protect public health.


Diseases like tuberculosis, measles and diphtheria were treated and contained here. There was also a psychiatric ward as immigrants deemed psychopathic could not be admitted into the US. The sad irony for the patients on the island’s south side was that they had a view of the Statue of Liberty  while they awaited deportation.


Corridors were open to allow fresh air to circulate. Beds were placed along walls, separated by windows. Doctors and nurses changed protective gear between patients…cutting edge for the times.


There was a morgue and autopsy room designed with audience seating so that city physicians could learn from the sometimes exotic cases handled on Ellis Island. Only 3500 patients died in the course of the hospital’s run, a small percentage of the million plus immigrants treated.


Ellis Island Posts:


Location: Jersey City & New York City

Designation: National Monument

Date designated or established: 5/11/1965

Date of my visit: 2/29/2020

20 thoughts on “Ellis Island: Hospital for Contagious Disease

  1. Pingback: Ellis Island: Hospital for Contagious Disease — National Parks With T – The Narrow Edge

    1. Our tour guide didn’t have a count for us, but over a million were treated at the hospital complex over the course of its history, so the number would have to be in the hundreds of thousands.

      1. I wonder who paid for their passage when prospective immigrants were denied entry and sent back to their home countries? The migrants must have used most their financial resources to get to the US, and it would have been harsh – cruel, even – to force them to pay for a return trip they hadn’t bargained for. But I don’t suppose the US government was keen on paying either (in my experience, governments are rarely keen on paying!)

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