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Ellis Island

In the first half of the 20th century, many Americans regarded immigrants as almost intrinsically dangerous – to health, to wealth, and to the American state. The 'Progressive' Era was in fact marked by virulent ‘nativism’ and even nostalgia for an imagined American past (an irony that was observed even by contemporary commentators). Historical scholarship has often painted the immigration station at Ellis Island as a specific response to these concerns. It was certainly a site in which medical professionals and public health workers actively strove to addressing these fears through scientific and organizational innovation. But why did anti immigrant sentiments so often focus on migrants as a threat to the nation’s health? Were public perceptions of the risks posed by imported disease (and its unclean importers) realistic? What other factors played into fears of immigrant bodies -- and how did they shape and reflect the screening processes and 'medical gaze' at Ellis Island?


Required Readings:

  • Amy L. Fairchild, Introduction, Science at the Borders: Imigrant Medical Inspection and the Shaping of the Modern Industrial Labor Force (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003), 1-19. Course Extract
  • Roxana Galusca, "From Fictive Ability to National Identity: Disability, Medical Inspection, and Public Health Regulations on Ellis Island." Cultural Critique, no. 72 (2009): 137-63.


Discussion questions:

  • Inclusion or exclusion: what was Ellis Island for? And why has Ellis Island become a touchstone of 'American' identity and history? (You might find it useful to think about the ways in which the Ellis Island has been commemorated/celebrated, too. You can compare it to other memorial/commemorative sites of migration using Eureka Heinrich, 'Museums, History and Migration in Australia', History Compass) and even better, in her chapter 'Paying Tribute: Migrant Memorial Walls and the 'Nation of Immigrants' (kindly made available to us by Dr Heinrich, here. See also Nancy Green, below).
  • How did medical inspection articulate and reflect changing American identity from the opening of Ellis Island to its closure?


Background Readings:

Garland E. Allen, ‘The social and economic origins of genetic determinism: a case history of the American Eugenics Movement, 1900-1940 and its lessons for today’, Genetica - Den Haag 99 (1997): 77, SwetsWise.

Ronald Bayer and Amy Fairchild, ‘The Limits of Privacy: Surveillance and the Control of Disease’, Health Care Analysis 10 (2002): 19–35, SwetsWise.

Tobias Brinkmann, ‘Why Paul Nathan Attacked Albert Ballin: The Transatlantic Mass Migration and the Privatization of Prussia's Eastern Border Inspection, 1886-1914’, Central European History 43, no. 1 (2010): 47-83. This article covers the European side of migration to US as Ellis Island is opening, and addresses role of private firms in regulating flows of migrants and migrant bodies. It’s an unusual perspective, and worth exploring.

Lorie Conway, Forgotten Ellis Island: The Extraordinary Story of America's Immigrant Hospital (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Books, 2007).

Amy Fairchild, Science at the Borders: Imigrant Medical Inspection and the Shaping of the Modern Industrial Labor Force (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2003).

Sarah Gualtieri, “From Internal to International Migration,” in Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009) FOR A VIEW OF 'OTHER' AND PRE-ELLIS ISLAND MIGRANTS. [NB: as of Aug 2018, this sample chapter opens, then quickly closes itself -- so as soon as it opens, download it to your own computer!]

David Gerber and Alan M. Kraut, eds, American immigration and ethnicity: a reader (Basingstoke: Palgrave 2007).

Nancy Green, 'A French Ellis Island? Museums, Memory and History in France and the United States', History Workshop Journal, vol. 63 no. 1, 2007, pp. 239-253. Project MUSE,

Alan M. Kraut, ‘Foreign Bodies: The Perennial Negotiation over Health and Culture in a Nation of Immigrants’, Journal of American Ethnic History 23 (2004): pp. 3-22. Electronic Journal.

Alan M Kraut, Silent travelers : germs, genes, and the "immigrant menace" (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995). Ultra-readable, fascinating account, and great for exploring a key concept we will discuss at length, 'hygienic citizenship'...

Krista Maglen, ‘Importing Trachoma: The Introduction into Britain of American Ideas of an 'Immigrant Disease', 1892-1906’, Immigrants & Minorities 23 (2005): pp 80–99.

Howard Markel, Alexandra Minna Stern, ‘The Foreignness of Germs: The Persistent Association of Immigrants and Disease in American Society’, Milbank Quarterly 80 (2002): 757, SwetsWise.

Howard Markel and Alexandra Minna Stern, "Which Face? Whose Nation? Immigration, Public Health, and the Construction of Disease at America's Ports and Borders," in Nancy Foner, Rubén G. Rumbaut, and Steven J. Gold, eds., Immigration Research for a New Century: Multidisciplinary Perspectives (New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2000), 93-112.

Shelley Reuter, ‘The Genuine Jewish Type: Racial Ideology and Anti-Immigrationism in Early Medical Writing about Tay-Sachs Disease’, The Canadian Journal of Sociology, Vol. 31, Number 3, Summer 2006, pp. 291-323 Project MUSE.

Jonathan Reinarz, Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2014), ‘Chapter 3 Odorous Others’, pp. 85-112. Try this for an alternative sensory perspective on prejudice, race and migration!

Brit Tevis, '"The Hebrews Are Appearing in Court in Great Numbers": Toward a Reassessment of Early Twentieth-Century American Jewish Immigration History', American Jewish History, vol. 100 no. 3, 2016, pp. 319-347. Project MUSE, doi:10.1353/ajh.2016.0051


Ellis Island National Park: History and Stories

Images of Ellis Island at the Library of Congress

Images of Ellis Island from the Latin American Studies Organisation

Ellis Island Bibliography

You can search ALL passenger landing records here (though you must make a free account): Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Foundation

Tenement Museum (Note that this website is aimed at pre-university level learners and is not a suitable secondary source at this level -- but it does include some useful primary sources).

National Archives and Records Administration [NARA] Immigration Records

National Archives 'Digital Vaults' (NB: this source has been designed to help teachers -- but includes some very intersting primary sources)