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Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island

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Medical and Mental Exam Process - Immigrants, Ellis Island, 1917

Posted: 934027200000
Classification: Query
Edited: 993231521000
Surnames: Mullan
This Ellis Island document is guaranteed to shock you, it did me!

I am posting it to show the harsh attitudes immigrants were faced with right from the first. Put yourself in the place of your immigrant ancestor, exhausted, hungry, apprehensive, possibly sick, probably poor, having to stand in line for hours with small children, many knowing only a few words of English - all worrying that their families might be broken up and members sent back to their homeland.

It is to their credit that most not only survived their ordeals in life but perservered and became good citizens of the United States! Reforms were badly needed, as outlined in the letter posted earlier at the website. If it was this bad in 1921, what was it like before that?

Of course, the immigrants did find friendly people who helped them along the way, but it is any wonder they preferred the company of their "own kind?"

The examinations that immigrants faced at Ellis Island were the final tests after a long journey. The medical examination came first. In 1917, E. H. Mullan, a surgeon and U.S. Public Health Official, describes the physical and mental examination process at Ellis Island in his report:

Administration and Line Inspection at Ellis Island by E. H. Mullan, Surgeon, United States Pubic Health Service, "Public Health Reports," May 18, 1917.

"Immigrants not traveling in the cabin, who enter the United States at the port of New York, are first brought to Ellis Island in order to undergo an examination to determine their fitness for admission.

The average immigrant remains at Ellis Island two or three hours, during which time he undergoes an examination by the Public Health Service in order to determine his mental and physical condition, and by the Immigration Service in order to find out whether he is otherwise admissible...

As the immigrant approaches, the officer gives him a quick glance. Experience enables him in that one glance to take in six details, namely, the scalp, face, neck, hands, gait and general condition, both mental and physical. Should any of these details not come into view, the alien is halted and the officer satisfies himself that no suspicious sign or symptom exists regarding that particular detail. For instance, if the immigrant is wearing a high collar, the officer opens the collar or unbuttons the upper shirt button and sees whether a goiter, tumor, or other abnormality exists... Likewise, if the alien approaches the officer with hat on he must be halted, hat removed and scalp observed in order to exclude the presence of favus, ringworm, or other skin diseases of this region of the body. Pompadours are always a suspicious sign. Beneath such long growth of hair are frequently seen areas of favus....

Where the alien carries luggage on his shoulder or back, it may be necessary to make him drop his parcels and to walk 5 or 10 feet in order to exclude suspicious gait or spinal curvature. Immigrants at times carry large parcels in both arms and over their shoulders in order that the gait resulting from shortened exremity or ankylosed joint may escape notice. In like manner they maneuver in attempting to conceal the gaits of Little's disease, spastic paralysis and other nervous disorders. All children over 2 years of age are taken from their mother's arms and are made to walk...

Many inattentive and stupid-looking aliens are questioned by the medical officer in the various languages as to their age, destination and nationality. Often simple questions in addition and multiplication are propounded. Should the immigrant appear stupid and inattentive to such an extent that mental defect is suspected a X is made with chalk on his coat at the anterior aspect of his right shoulder. Should definite signs of mental disease be observed, a circle X would be used instead of the plain X. In like manner, a chalk mark is placed on the anterior aspect of the right shoulder in all cases where physical deformity or disease is suspected.

In this connection B would indicate back; C, conjunctivitis; CT, trachoma; E, eyes; F, face; Ft, feet; G, goiter; H, heart, K, hernia, L, lameness; N, neck; P, physical and lungs; Pg, pregnancy; Sc, scalp; S, senility. The words hand, measles, nails, skin, temperature, vision, voice, which are often used, are written out in full.

The alien after passing the scrutiny of the first medical office passes on to the end of the line, where he is quickly inspected again by the second examiner. This examiner is known in service parlance as "the eye man." He stands at the end of the line with his back to the window and faces the approaching alien. This position affords good light, which is so essential for eye examinations... He looks carefully at the eyeball in order to detect signs of defect and disease of that organ and then quickly everts the upper lids in search of conjunctivitis and trachoma. Corneal opacities, nystagmus, squint, bulging eyes, the wearing of eye glasses, clumsiness, and other signs on the part of the alien, will be sufficient cause for him to be chalk-marked "Vision," He will then be taken out of the line by an attendant and his vision will be carefully examined...

Roughly speaking, from 15 to 20 percent of the immigrants are chalk-marked by the medical officers, and it is these chalked individuals who must undergo a second and more thorough examination in the examination rooms of the Public Health Service. Those aliens marked X and circle X are placed in the mental room. All other marked aliens are placed in the two physical rooms, one for men and the other for women. Every effort is made to detect signs and symptoms of mental disease and defect. Any suggestion, no matter how trivial, that would point to abnormal mentality is sufficient cause to defer the immigrant for a thorough examination...

Experience enables the inspecting officer to tell at a glance the race of an alien. There are, however, exceptions to this rule. It occasionally happens that the inspecting officer thinking that an approaching alien is of a certain race brings him to a standstill and questions him. The alien's facial expression and manner are peculiar and just as the officer is about to decide that this alien is mentally unbalanced, he finds out that the alien in question belongs to an entirely different race. The peculiar attitude of the alien in question is no longer peculiar; it is readily accounted for by racial considerations. Accordingly, the office passes him on as a mentally normal person. Those who have inspected immigrants know that almost every race has its own type of reacting during the inspection. On the line if an Englishman reacts to questions in the manner of an Irishman, his lack of mental balance would be suspected. The converse is also true. If the Italian responded to questions as the Russian Finn responds, the former would in all probability be suffering with a depressive psychosis."

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