Immigrant Girl Receives Medical Exam at Ellis Island

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Immigrant Girl Receives Medical Exam at Ellis Island


By: Anonymous

Date: 1905

Source: Immigrant Girl Receives Medical Exam at Ellis Island. Picture History, LLC.

About the Photographer: Officials at Ellis Island photographed the processing of immigrants at Ellis Island on several occasions to reassure Americans that the government was taking measures to protect the nation from the threats posed by unchecked immigration.


The decades after the American Civil War (1861–1865) witnessed a shift in the attitudes of Americans toward immigrants. A spirit of acceptance changed to one of suspicion and fear. This escalating xenophobia can be traced to the vast numbers of immigrants who poured into the United States within a few decades. Between 1880 and 1920, more than twenty million immigrants entered the U.S., with almost fourteen million of them arriving in the twentieth century. Even more disturbing to native-born Americans, many of these immigrants were not Anglo-Saxon, practiced unusual customs, followed the Catholic, Jewish, or other faiths, did not speak English, and were unfamiliar with democratic traditions.

In response to the flood of strangers, Americans demanded immigration restrictions. In 1892, the Ellis Island Immigration Station opened its doors in New York in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty. By the time that it closed in 1954, about twelve million of the "huddled masses" first touched American soil there. At its peak in 1907, the center processed about 5,000 people per day. These were mostly European immigrants who arrived crammed into steerage compartments of ships. Asian immigrants were processed at Angel Island near San Francisco. Those immigrants who could afford first -and second-class cabins did not have to visit Ellis Island. Instead, they were examined aboard ship and most of them simply walked down the gangway onto the streets of Manhattan.

Ellis Island existed to weed out dangerous immigrants. An army of inspectors, doctors, nurses, and public officials questioned, examined, and documented the newcomers. Immigrants were poked and prodded for signs of infectious disease or debilitating handicaps. Although some who were sick or lame were detained for days or weeks, the vast majority of immigrants received stamps of approval and were on their way to their new homes after three or four hours.

Only 2 percent of immigrants were denied entry altogether. These immigrants were identified as criminals, anarchists, or carriers of contagious diseases such as tuberculosis or trachoma, an eye disease resulting in blindness. These people were placed back on the ship for transport, usually back to Europe.



See primary source image.


Ellis Island was not the first effort to stop the entry of disease-carrying immigrants, although it is the best-known and largest attempt. The posting of medical officers at ports dates to the epidemic of bubonic plague in the fourteenth century. In the 1970s, the eradication of smallpox and other communicable diseases made it appear as if screening of immigrants was no longer necessary. However, in response to twenty-first century plagues, medical officers are again being stationed at ports of entry.

In 2002, cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome or SARS were seen among international travelers entering the U.S. In response, Congress and the Centers for Disease Control reinvigorated the practice of stationing medical officers at ports. The threat of the rapid spread of SARS combined with fears of exotic diseases like the Ebola virus and the dangers of bioterrorism to prompt more stringent medical screening. The quarantine system, which includes most major airports, is designed to stop microbial threats at the borders.

By 2005, the U.S. had medical officers at 474 sites, including airports, seaports, and land border crossings, to screen people entering the country for communicable diseases. The officers are particularly concerned about travelers with symptoms of H5N1, the deadly avian flu virus that began in Asia. The Los Angeles immigration station is typical with one or two reports received per week from international airlines reporting passengers with flu-like symptoms. The medical officer examines the travelers, asks where they have been and whether they had contact with live birds. No cases of bird flu have been discovered in the U.S. as of January 2006, but a person arriving with a suspected case would be referred to a local hospital. No one would be quarantined. The officers also identify high-risk diseases that could potentially come into the U.S. through such cargo as bush meat, pelts, and exotic animals.

It is doubtful that a highly communicable human disease such as avian flu could be stopped at the border. Medical officers expect that they may stop some infected people early, but they do not assume that increased surveillance will stop every infected traveler.



Coan, Peter M. Ellis Island Interviews: In Their Own Words. New York: Facts on File, 1997.

Pitkin, Thomas. Keepers of the Gate: A History of Ellis Island. New York: New York University Press, 1975.