Weird History
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What Was Hospital Hygiene Like On Ellis Island?

Updated September 4, 2019 14.8k views13 items

History runs deep at Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital, a historical landmark where millions of immigrants were examined after arriving in America from 1892 to 1954. Migrants escaping poverty and conflict looked to America as a new start, hailing from all over the world. It's said that nearly half of Americans are able to trace the roots of at least one ancestor to the site, located just southwest of Manhattan in New York City.

The concept of hygiene was still emerging during Ellis Island's heyday, with healthcare workers doing their best to deal with the possibilities of new illness and disease. Despite millions of people coming through, there were fewer than 4,000 lives lost during the duration of Ellis Island's operations. Considering the resources available at the time, it is fascinating to look at the healthcare techniques that were used in order to not just keep the facility flowing, but keep it as clean as possible.

  • There Were 16 Contagious Disease Wards And Six Infectious Disease Wards

    When thinking of the year 1892, one may guess that medical facilities at the time consisted of only small and in-home practices. However, that wasn't the case for Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital. In fact, the establishment was home to 16 contagious disease wards, in addition to six infectious disease wards. While the facility employed only 12 doctors, they were supported by dozens of nurses.  

    When considering the millions that passed through the hospital in order to be cleared to enter the United States, the number of rejections was actually quite small, coming in at less than 2%. Most migrants were cleared within seconds or hours of being admitted.

  • Inspectors Used Fingers, Or A Button Hook, To Lift Up Eyelids And Inspect Eyeballs For Pink Eye

    After being made to walk up a large number of steps in order for specialists to monitor for breathing and other visible health issues, immigrants faced eyeball inspections. 

    Trachoma (or pink eye), sometimes referred to as chlamydia of the eye, was a scary diagnosis to have. Doctors used their index fingers, or a button hook, to lift up eyelids and inspect them for the disease. If a patient was infected, the prognosis was grim. A majority of sufferers ended up blind after enduring extensive surgeries and treatments involving hazardous chemicals.

    Today the illness is easily cured with antibiotics.

  • After Teddy Roosevelt’s 1905 Visit, New Orders Were Put In Place Requiring Frequent Handwashing And The Sterilization Of Tools

    Photo: United States Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In 1905, then-President Theodore Roosevelt visited Ellis Island - only to find unsettling techniques were being used to examine migrants. Medical workers used unwashed hands and unsanitary medical tools when processing patients. In retrospect, such practices may seem inexplicable, but considering the resources available at the time, healthcare workers would not have been aware of the same risks that became common knowledge in the subsequent years.

    Roosevelt's observations eventually led to the sanitary implementations that modern medical facilities now have in place - handwashing and the sterilization of medical tools.

  • Those With Communicable Diseases Were Separated And Quarantined

    Photo: Lewis Hines / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Patients with questionable mental or physical capacity were made to be quarantined and separated from their peers. This involved living grueling hours alone - think solitary confinement for hopeful settlers.

    The process could take anywhere from days to years to complete.