Visiting public health history: Ellis Island

  1. Visiting public health history: Ellis Island

    Janet Golden, PhD, Professor of history, Rutgers University-Camden

    Tuesday, June 17, 2014, 6:30 AM

    Twelve million people passed through the Ellis Island, New York's immigration station between 1892 and 1954. Before entering the United States, third-class passengers underwent a visual medical inspection by officers of the United States Public Health Service. The woman in the image above is having her eyes checked for trachoma, a highly contagious disease, by doctor who is rolling up her eyelid with a buttonhook. The physicians looked for signs of contagious diseases as well as mental and physical disabilities.

    Most immigrants passed inspection and went on their way to making new lives in the United States. Those determined to need additional examination had their clothing marked with chalk. They were sent for further investigation of their mental status and physical health. Some were diagnosed with a treatable condition and sent to the hospital on the island. A small percentage of would-be immigrants were sent home.

    There have been many changes to our immigration laws over the past centuries. They reflected a concern about contagious illnesses and the need to protect the public's health but also, at times, prejudicial views of foreigners rather than legitimate public health interests. Over time the laws became more specific in terms of diseases that exclude entrance into the U.S. The laws also changed to reflect advances in medicine, such a growing list of vaccinations required prior to entering the country.

    Medical screening of those seeking permanent or temporary residency in the U.S. continues to this day. Applicants must pass a medical examination and meet the vaccine requirements. The list of communicable diseases that can lead to exclusion includes tuberculosis, syphilis, Hansen's disease (leprosy), and a few others as well as any diseases designated by presidential order and those listed as part of an international public health emergency; AIDS was on the list from early in the epidemic until a few years ago. Exceptions to exclusion can be made out of national interest....

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