Forgotten Ellis Island
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About the Program
"To those who went through it, it was one of the most precious gifts you were given, because when you were sick you couldn't do anything about it. But here was a place that rescued you." — John Henry Wilberding, immigrant from Germany, who was hospitalized on Ellis Island in 1928 with the measles
Forgotten Ellis Island is the first film (and companion book) to be produced about the immigrant hospital on Ellis Island. Opened in 1902, the hospital grew to twenty-two medical buildings which sprawled across two islands adjacent to Ellis Island, the largest port of entry in the United States. Massive and modern, the hospital was America's first line of defense against contagious, often virulent disease. In the era before antibiotics, tens of thousands of immigrant patients were separated from family, detained in the hospital, and healed from illness before becoming citizens. 350 babies were born in the hospital, and many were named after the doctors and nurses that helped deliver them. Ten times that many immigrants died on Ellis Island — 3,500 were buried in paupers graves around New York City.
The medical record of nineteen year old, Ormond Joseph McDermott, who died in the hospital from scarlet fever, reveals the limitations of early 20th century medicine. Lucy Simpson, Ormond's Public Health nurse, wrote in his medical record, "He is restless and wants to see his friend. Mind wandering." Without antibiotics to fight his infection, she could offer little more than to swab his throat with antiseptic and give him doses of camphor in oil. Ormond's medical record is one of the few to be found in immigration archives. National Park Service officials believe the hospital records have either been destroyed or are stored in some unknown federal facility. Ormond McDermott's niece, Anne, who appears in the film, was located in Sydney, Australia through the help of two genealogists. Anne provided photographs and letters written by Ormond before he died.
For two years, the National Park Service gave independent producer Lorie Conway and her company, Boston Film and Video Productions, exclusive access to film the Ellis Island hospital buildings before restoration efforts began. Former patients were also interviewed at the location and elsewhere. "They didn't leave where they came from because life was so good for them. Whatever they had here was better," said Leah Shain, whose aunt, Pearl Yablonski, was diagnosed as "feebleminded" and deported from Ellis Island.
For over five years, original research was conducted in the archives at Ellis Island, the National Archives, the New York Public Library, the Library of Congress, and other institutions and personal collections. Many never-before-published photographs are featured in the film and companion book (Harper Collins, 2007) as well as excerpts from oral histories with medical staff, ward matrons, and patients. The film premiered on Ellis Island in October 2007 where an abbreviated version is being shown in the Great Hall Museum.
Save Ellis Island has partnered with the National Park Service to restore the former hospital buildings for re-use as the Ellis Island Institute which will be open to scholars and the public for the study of immigration and its effect on nations, economies, and culture.
As the nation once again wrestles with the issue of immigration, Forgotten Ellis Island reminds us how we became the diverse nation that we are today. It is a powerful tribute to the best and worst of America's dealings with its new citizens-to-be.
© 2008 Boston Film & Video Productions LLC. All Rights Reserved. Text by Lorie Conway. Photos courtesy of Christopher Barnes and the United States Public Health Service.