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Forgotten Ellis Island: The Extraordinary Story of America's Immigrant Hospital

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A century ago, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, one of the world's greatest public hospitals was built. Massive and modern, the hospital's twenty-two state-of-the-art buildings were crammed onto two small islands, man-made from the rock and dirt excavated during the building of the New York subway. As America's first line of defense against immigrant-borne disease, the hospital was where the germs of the world converged.

The Ellis Island hospital was at once welcoming and...

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Forgotten Ellis Island: Fear and Fever on Ellis Island

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A century ago, in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, one of the world's greatest public hospitals was built. Massive and modern, the hospital's twenty-two state-of-the-art buildings were crammed onto two small islands, man-made from the rock and dirt excavated during the building of the New York subway. As America's first line of defense against immigrant-borne disease, the hospital was where the germs of the world converged.

The Ellis Island hospital was at once welcoming and foreboding—a fateful crossroad for hundreds of thousands of hopeful immigrants. Those nursed to health were allowed entry to America. Those deemed feeble of body or mind were deported.

Three short decades after it opened, the Ellis Island hospital was all but abandoned. As America after World War I began shutting its border to all but a favored few, the hospital fell into disuse and decay, its medical wards left open only to the salt air of the New York Harbor.

With many never-before-published photographs and compelling, sometimes heartbreaking stories of patients (a few of whom are still alive today) and medical staff, Forgotten Ellis Island is the first book about this extraordinary institution. It is a powerful tribute to the best and worst of America's dealings with its new citizens-to-be.

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Editorial Reviews

Joy Hakim
“This narrative, with its haunting illustrations, belongs to all of us. I was fascinated.”
Doris K. Goodwin
“Absolutely fascinating story that has never been told…Conway [is] armed with passion, insight and an eye for compelling detail.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061241963
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/16/2007
  • Pages: 208
  • Sales rank: 462,167
  • Product dimensions: 7.50 (w) x 8.50 (h) x 0.76 (d)

Meet the Author

Lorie Conway is an independent producer and filmmaker. Her work has been recognized with the Peabody, DuPont, and Cable Ace awards. In 1993–94, she was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard University; she now serves as Vice President of the Nieman Foundation Advisory Board and as an Associate of the Boston Public Library. Her work on Forgotten Ellis Island was supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities. She lives with her family in Boston, Massachusetts.

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Read an Excerpt

Forgotten Ellis Island

The Extraordinary Story of America's Immigrant Hospital
By Lorie Conway

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2007 Lorie Conway
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780061241963

Chapter One

As the steamship moravia headed into new york harbor on august 30, 1892, the marine hospital service (mhs) doctors on ellis island braced for the worst.

The cholera epidemic then ravaging Asia and Europe—150,000 dead in Russia alone—had infected the ship's passengers. Twenty-four had been stricken with the illness, and 22 of them had died—all but two of the dead were children under the age of 10. Surviving passengers had panicked, throwing the dead overboard "as if they were dead birds or garbage."2

Three times previously in the 19th century, the United States had suffered a devastating cholera outbreak, each originating abroad. Would the Moravia's arrival mark the start of the fourth?

Opened as a port of entry only eight months earlier, Ellis Island was poorly equipped to handle the threat. Its two-story wooden dispensary had neither the staff nor the laboratory to contain a disease as deadly as cholera. Believing he had no other choice, Dr. W. T. Jenkins, the Port of New York's health officer, ordered the Moravia to anchor offshore until the outbreak was contained. Five days later, two more"death ships," the Rugia and Normannia, steamed into New York Harbor, and they, too, were ordered to anchor offshore. Dr. Jenkins warned that anyone—passenger or crew member—who tried to leave the quarantined ships would be shot. More than a thousand passengers were stranded on the ships, and they begged to be let off, terrified that sick passengers would soon infect them. Their plea was denied. Over the next several days, additional cases broke out, killing most of the infected passengers within a day. Not until nearly three weeks had passed were the healthy passengers finally allowed to disembark.3

Was the inadequacy of the medical facility at Ellis Island partly to blame for the additional deaths?4 Health authorities could not easily dismiss the possibility. The arriving passengers might all have lived had they been immediately removed from the ships and quarantined at a safe medical facility.

The issue of how to protect the health of both the nation and the immigrant would hover over Ellis Island for the next decade. Its existing medical facility was not equipped to handle anything but routine illness. When the wooden infirmary caught fire and burned to the ground in 1897, the problem became dire. A makeshift hospital was established in an old house on Ellis Island, but it was small and poorly appointed. Passengers with infectious diseases such as measles and diphtheria were shuttled to neighboring hospitals, which increasingly refused to take them. Although New York's indigent hospital, Bellevue, remained open to immigrants for several years to come, even it eventually stopped taking such patients. The city's health commissioner, Ernst Lederle, told reporters: "The patients from Ellis Island should not be brought into the city limits at all. They are a source of infection from the time they leave the island until they reach the foot of East 16th Street. Besides, they have to be placed in wards where they subject other patients to the danger of mixed infection."5

Ironically, fears of immigrant-borne disease were mounting at a time when medical breakthroughs raised hopes that many illnesses could be corralled. The science of medicine was being redefined by the work of Joseph Lister, Louis Pasteur, and Robert Koch. They had identified bacilli responsible for several killer diseases, and experimental vaccines were being developed.

Nevertheless, old ideas about disease had a powerful hold on the general public and fed concerns about immigrants, particularly the huge wave of new entrants from southern and eastern Europe. These arrivals were visibly poorer and less well-kempt than the earlier arrivals from northern Europe and carried strange diseases like favus and trachoma. New Hampshire senator William Chandler said: "No one has suggested a race distinction. We are confronted with the fact, however, that the poorest immigrants do come from certain races."6 The New York Times in an editorial was more direct: "We do not want and we ought to refuse to land all or any of these unclean Italians or Russian Hebrews. We have enough dirt, misery, crime, sickness, and death of our own without permitting any more to be thrust upon us."7 Alabama senator J. Thomas Heflin, a rabid nativist, called these immigrants "the greatest evil that has confronted us in a century."8

Hostility toward the new arrivals was lessened by a hard fact: the United States needed them. America's Industrial Revolution had started later than Europe's but was now overtaking it. Labor was in short supply. "Industry is developing, workers are in demand," wrote one observer. "Without them the country cannot maintain its present pace."9

In his first State of the Union message in 1901, President Theodore Roosevelt proposed a change in immigration policy that would thrust the medical facility at Ellis Island into national prominence. Roosevelt said that America should open its gates to the able-bodied while barring entry to the weak and the infirm. "We can not have too much immigration of the right kind," said Roosevelt, "and we should have none of the wrong kind." In order to keep out what he called "undesirable immigrants," Roosevelt proposed "a more rigid system of examination at our immigrant ports."

Although the new policy applied to all points of entry, of which there were more than three dozen, Ellis Island was the central concern. Because of its location in New York Harbor, it handled more arrivals than all the others combined. The numbers were staggering. A reporter described being overwhelmed by the presence of "nineteen hundred immigrants . . . in the buildings," only to be told by an immigration officer: "We sometimes have seven and eight thousand immigrants to handle at once and then we have to work pretty hard. This year we expect a million immigrants."10

Recognizing that Ellis Island would need strong leadership if it was to institute a more thorough screening process, President Roosevelt turned to William Williams, a Wall Street lawyer who also happened to be a friend . . .


Excerpted from Forgotten Ellis Island by Lorie Conway Copyright © 2007 by Lorie Conway. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 31, 2007

    A reviewer

    This is an absolute perfect book to read about how immigrants were medically screened before coming into the US. I doubt any of us knew any of this- but it helped save people and provided medical care for those who couldn't afford it. The pictures are incredible, which later led to a photojournal of the rebuilding of the hospital of Ellis Island. The author did an outstanding job of covering Ellis hospital from the beginning to the end. I really thought that some of the procedures that were put in place could be used today. A must read.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 21, 2013


    No book is better than this one when your looking for a book about Ellis Island's medical instatution.

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