“Doctors at the Gate: The U.S. Public Health Service at Ellis Island”

For immigrants arriving at Ellis Island at the turn of the century, their first American experience was enduring health inspections. As soon as these newcomers set foot on dry land, they were ushered past the U.S. Public Health Service corps of doctors and nurses to be spot-checked for communicable diseases, mental deficiency, or anything else that might place them under public charge for deportation. The National Museum of Health and Medicine’s “Doctors at the Gate” exhibit chronicles the ebb and flow that hit Lady Liberty’s docks during immigration’s peak, from 1892 to 1924, through a rather small selection of photographs, documents, and artifacts. The exhibit shows that U.S. Public Health Service workers were assigned ranks and dressed in military-style uniforms that, though intended to impress immigrants with a new tenor of pure citizenry, most likely conjured images of the military persecution some of them were escaping. Likewise, though hospitals were erected to care for those who arrived with treatable illnesses, and most were admitted eventually, the inspections and quarantines no doubt shaped the stigma attached to aliens. Exhibit highlights include the buttonhooks doctors used to peer underneath eyelids for signs of infection (yow!), a letter from the Wringling Bros. & Barnum ‘n’ Bailey Circus declaring that it would pay and care for two Indian boys brought over to perform in the circus’s sideshow, and the wood block puzzles used in crude “psychiatric” evaluations. At the National Museum of Health and Medicine, Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Georgia Ave. & Dahlia St. NW. FREE. (202) 782-2200. (Anthony Keats)