The Untold Story of Ellis Island's Immigrant Hospital
9/27/2009
A new book and documentary reveal the stories of the patients, doctors and nurses of Ellis Island's immigrant hospital.
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—which, along with his temporary worker status, aroused the suspicion of immigration officials. During his 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,” 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 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.

“As a granddaughter of immigrants who came through Ellis Island, I was astonished to find out there was untold history of this place we thought we knew everything about,” Conway says. She called the National Park Service, owner of Ellis Island.

Conway received open access to the buildings. “They were a wreck,” she says, describing crumbling asbestos, flaking paint and infiltrating poison ivy. “With them, stories were being lost.” Over the next 10 years, she created Forgotten Ellis Island, a documentary, book (Collins) and Web site.

She aimed not only to explain the hospital’s significance, but tell the stories of the patients, doctors and nurses who spent part of their lives there.

But she had to do it without some important records. “A librarian at a federal facility in Louisiana thought she had seen the patient records, so I filled out a Freedom of Information Act request and someone went to the basement and checked.” The papers were those of WWII soldiers treated at the hospital, not of immigrants.

Conway holds hope the missing records will turn up. “I was told they existed before the restoration of the Great Hall began … that there were boxes and boxes and boxes of paper in the hospital building. At some point during the restoration [they] were removed.”

In fact, no central repository holds the hospital’s records. Conway researched at the New York Public Library, Public Health Service, and US Citizenship and Immigration Services and other agencies. She tracked down two former patients and walked with them through the hospital corridors.

Unexpected pay dirt came from researching illnesses. “If you know your grandfather had trachoma or diphtheria or what have you, for many of these diseases, there are files at the National Archives with case studies from the hospital,” Conway says.

She read about the painful treatment for the eye infection trachoma: scrubbing the inner eyelid with a steel brush and silver nitrate. She found a doctor’s photographs of “feebleminded” immigrants. In oral histories, women patients described the embarrassment of undressing for examinations; hospitalized children recalled the trauma of separation from their parents. “All these elements had to be woven into the story,” Conway says. “The hospital was both a line of first defense against diseases and a place designed to heal people.”

That healing side of the hospital’s mission revealed itself in photos os patients smiling outdoors, browsing books in the on-site Red Cross library and clutching donated Christmas presents.

Ormond Joseph McDermott’s file is the only complete set of Ellis Island hospital patient records Conway found, tucked among his immigration papers because his father requested an investigation into his death. With help from genealogists, Conway located McDermott’s modern family.

The death of “Little OJ” had caused lasting pain: His parents broke down and relatives helped raise his nine siblings. “To have his story finally told, beginning, middle and end,” Conway says, “was very gratifying for the family.”

Learn more about the effort to restore Ellis Island's hospital buildings at Save Ellis Island.
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