Healing History
A 10-year project reveals the untold story of Ellis Island's hospital and the experiences of immigrants treated there.
In 1921, 19-year-old Australian salesman Ormond Joseph McDermott arrived at Ellis Island, bent on learning the “motor car” business at the South Bend, Ind., Studebaker factory. But he forgot his passport on the Wandilla — a mistake that, along with his temporary worker status, aroused the suspicion of immigration officials. After nine days of detention in the crowded passenger dormitory, he came down with scarlet fever and took a bed in the island's Contagious Disease Hospital. Six days later, he was dead.

“I have a son Ormond's age. I kept looking at his records thinking, I have to find his face,” says Lorie Conway, a film producer who stumbled across the doctor's report while researching the immigrant hospital on Ellis Island.

A New York Times Magazine article about “the other Ellis Island” had caught Conway's eye in 1998. The 22 hospital buildings on the island's South Side saw tens of thousands of patients from 1902 through the 1930s. At the state-of-the-art facility, a staff of 300 intercepted an array of diseases such as trachoma, diphtheria, consumption and favus before they could reach American shores. But while Ellis Island's Great Hall was renovated into a stunning museum, the entire South Side lay abandoned.