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.

  • Mattresses Were Regularly Sterilized With Fluoroscopy And An Autoclave

    In order to ensure the cleanest sleeping and resting areas possible, physicians sterilized mattresses with the use of an autoclave and fluoroscopy. High-heat cleaning and sterilization methods ensured patients could get the rest they needed in a sterile environment.

    Doctors could inevitably rest better as well, knowing this would reduce the risk of cross-contamination.

  • Doctors Focused On Identifying Fungal Infections And Skin Diseases

    Photo: Brown Brothers / Wikipedia Commons / Public Domain

    Doctors focused largely on fungal infections and skin conditions when examining immigrants coming into Ellis Island. Hands, scalps, nails, and skin were all thoroughly inspected. Officials were looking for potential disease and other conditions, such as ringworm. The tests were intended to confirm if a potential migrant was healthy enough to work.

    Dozens of immigrants waiting to learn their fate were forced into fenced areas and sat on overcrowded benches. The areas were noisy, as the spaces were typically at max capacity. Those who didn't pass the exam were held for further testing.

  • Medical Staff Took Decontamination Showers

    Photo: George Grantham Bain / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    As immigration ramped up, making sure Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital was as hygienic as possible became of upmost importance. Employees were required to take decontamination showers to ensure the facility was kept as sanitary as possible. The showers were meant to reduce the risk of acquiring any illnesses or diseases that arrived to the island.

    Ellis Island physicians also used "original hairnets," which were made of material seen in hats at the time. This protected them from the heat of overhead lights in examination rooms.

  • Ellis Island Had One Of The First Hospitals To Require Rubber Gloves And Face Masks

    Photo: George Grantham Bain / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    When visiting a clinic, most people are accustomed to a certain level of care. Ellis Island Immigrant Hospital was revolutionary in that it was the first medical establishment in the United States to demand the use of facial masks and rubber gloves.

    These strict standards ensured that everything possible was being done to avoid disease through cross-contamination. Eventually the practice caught on - and nearly all medical facilities have followed suit - as overseen by the US Food and Drug Administration.