In 62 years of operation, 1892-1954, approximately 12 million immigrants passed through the Ellis Island. Since trachoma already existed in Appalacia and among Native Americans the Surgeon General declared in 1897 that trachoma to be ″a loathsome and dangerous contagious disease″ leading to blindness and dependency. Special efforts were aimed at preventing admission of anyone with active disease. Public Health Service (PHS) physicians at the Ellis Island were trained to look especially at the lids, cornea and conjunctiva for any sign of disease. Often buttonhooks for ladies’ shoes were used to evert the lids.
The PHS examined 25 million immigrants between 1891 and 1930 and 700,000 certificates were issued indicating disease or defect. Only about 11% of immigrants were deported and medical reasons never exceeded 1%. Nonetheless, trachoma was the most commonly cited reason (85%) for the immigrant being denied admission because of health concerns.
Submitted by Donelson R. Manley, MD for the Cogan Ophthalmic History Society.