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Medical Subject Headings (MeSH):
United States Public Health Service
Emigration and Immigration
"Remarks Presented at Ellis Island, New York" [Reminiscence] (2003)
Box Number: 9
Folder Number: 1989 Sep 18
By C. Everett Koop, M.D., Sc.D.
Surgeon General of the United States Public Health Service
Presented at Ellis Island, New York
September 28, 1989
Dr. Chang, Mr. Buckley, ladies and gentlemen.
We gather in this spectacular setting to remember and pay tribute to the roots from which we grow. Ellis Island -- more than
any symbol in America -- calls to mind our history as a nation of immigrants, of men, women and children who gave up established
ways of life to gamble on the possibilities of the New World.
From 1892 when the first immigration station was opened here in New York harbor until these facilities were padlocked in 1954,
it is estimated that more than 12 million would-be Americans passed through Ellis Island.
To many it was known as the Isle of Hope. Others referred to it as the Isle of Tears, both for the rending separations that
sometimes occurred here as well as for the tearful reunions that often took place on these few acres.
As you all know, the National Park Service in conjunction with the Statue of Liberty Foundation have been engaged in the magnificent
work of restoring of the Great Hall to create what will be the Ellis Island National Monument. This Monument that we see behind
us will be one of the lasting landmarks of the historical geography of our nation. I salute the National Park Service and
the Statue of Liberty Foundation for their vision and craftsmanship in creating a living museum that will keep future generations
of Americans in touch with past ones.
The special reason for our visit here today is another set of roots that are embedded deep in the soil of this island --
the roots of the United States Public Health Service.
This year marks the Centennial of an act signed by President Grover Cleveland "to establish the Commissioned Corps of
the Marine Hospital Service." For almost a century prior to that date, the federal government had provided medical care
to merchant seamen. This activity was strengthened in the 1870s by the formation of the Marine Hospital Service, which brought
uniforms, merit appointments and promotions, and career service with mobility to the Marine Hospital enterprise.
My predecessors of the period, however, foresaw the need for a broad-based Public Health Service. To accomplish this, they
sought to have the reforms they had implemented written into law -- a goal achieved in 1889 by the passage of the Commissioned
Corps Act that put the officers of the Marine Hospital Service on a footing with their counterparts in the Army and the Navy.
The Marine Hospital Service was thus poised to become involved in broader issues of health in America -- a step it took with
the assignment of medical officers to the new immigration facility on Ellis Island in 1892. Few in number at first, the staffing
at Ellis Island grew steadily, reaching a high point when some 350 employees of what had been renamed the Public Health Service
worked here in the years prior to World War I.
PHS work on Ellis Island was divided between "The Line", examining newly arrived immigrants; the staffing of the 650
beds in the two hospitals built for the care of sick arrivals; and boarding incoming ships to inspect cargoes and crews.
Virtually every commissioned officer of that epoch surged to her on Ellis Island. Medical training took place in the hospitals.
Graduates of Ellis Island were assigned abroad to screen emigrants prior to departure. Pioneering work in mental hygiene and
intelligence testing took place here, as did the development of techniques for surgical treatment of trachoma that were later
applied by the PHS throughout the American South.
Following World War I immigration policy became more restrictive and eventually the plane replaced the ship as a principal
means of immigration. Although the PHS maintained the hospital facilities on the Island until 1951, the period of titanic
immigration and ended shortly after the first world war.
For the PHS, though, the reality and the memory of Ellis Island remains alive today. It was here that our professional forbearers
moved out of the Marine hospitals and began a pattern of response to the health crises of the nation that remains the hallmark
of the Public Health Service today. The PHS, in general, and the Commissioned Corps, in particular, has been responding to
acute national needs ever since -- including the healthcare of Native Americans, the investigation of legionnaires' disease
and toxic shock syndrome, the treatment of refugees, and battle against AIDS.
It was here that the medical officers of the PHS labored to bring science to bear on the human condition in a systematic and
equitable fashion. The first democracy that the immigrant was to experience in the New World was medical democracy at the
hands of the Public Health Service on Ellis Island.
It was here that the PHS made its presence known to the country as a whole -- a viability it has not abandoned since.
In several days, I will formally step down as your Surgeon General. As I do that, I take with me many fond memories of the
people with whom I have worked over these past eight years and the goals we have reached together.
I also take with me the pride of having served this country and all of its people. I share that pride with the men and women
of the PHS of earlier years who staffed these buildings, who traversed this harbor many, many times, and who helped to build
today's United States. I salute them and their work. And I salute the Public Health Service they helped build . . . and
that I have been privileged to serve.