Excerpt from Chapter XI, Incidents of My Life: Professional – Literary – Social with Services in the Cause of Ireland by Thomas Addis Emmet, M.D. (NY: G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1911), pp. 135-147
Within a short distance of the counting-house I met Dr. Macnevin (a son of the Irish patriot), the only person I knew in the city outside of my family circle. He asked me what I was doing in New York and I asked him what he was doing downtown at that hour. It was just after the frightful famine in Ireland, when several hundred thousand emigrants had landed during the year in New York, and were dying in the streets of typhus or ship-fever, as it was called. Commissioners of Emigration were appointed, and they were erecting temporary buildings on Ward’s Island for hospital purposes. A Medical Board of fifteen visiting physicians had been appointed, and Dr. Macnevin was one of the number. He was then on his way to the place of meeting to examine applicants for the position of Resident Physician, and I accompanied him. I was the first victim and after an examination of four hours, during which time each member of the Board took a turn, I was judged competent and ordered to report for duty on the following day.
I had never seen a case of ship-fever, yet a building containing one hundred male cases was assigned to me, together with one hundred and fifty beds in addition for sick children and women, all of whom I had to visit twice a day and as often as necessary at other times, to see any special case.
I was also instructed to “go through” once a day a ward near my quarters containing about one hundred aged women. I was somewhat staggered at the responsibility put upon me, but I accepted the situation with a light heart, as the only means by which I could gain experience in the practice of my profession.
At an early hour next morning I began my work with the old women, feeling fully satisfied that I would accomplish what was expected of me if it could be done by my own efforts. I supposed all occupying beds in a hospital ward were sick, but when I was through, taking each woman in rotation, I had not a clear idea of my morning’s work, beyond having apparently cheered up greatly the spirits of the old women by my attention. In my effort to do justice to the complaints of each and to use advantage the accounts of family or traditional ailments, which were communicated by each in confidence, I had written pages of prescriptions, having attempted to treat symptoms, singly and in groups.
I was seen coming out of the building late in the day, weary and in want of food, when I was accosted by one of the staff with the salutation: “In the name of Heaven, Doctor, what have you been doing in there all day with those old women? Don’t you know that is part of the Refuge, and all they need is a little tea and tobacco?”
Fortunately for the sick in my service that day, when I was wanted and could not be found another physician had been assigned to them, and I was assisted each day thereafter…
I treated my patients in a weather-boarded, unplastered building, elevated some three or four feet from the ground and like a bowling alley with windows about twelve feet apart on each side, and with ventilators in the peak of the roof…. At one time we had between three and four thousand beds in the Emigrant Refuge Hospital, and from want of means had at first to use this kind of shanty, and they were continued in use as experience showed the putting up of regular hospital buildings would have been folly.
The windows were kept open night and day, at all seasons, and if I ever found a window closed, I would kick the glass out of it. Some visitors seeing this degree of exposure and the snow drifting in, presented the case and I was indicted by the Grand Jury for this evidence of inhumanity. The Legislature took part and sent a committee of investigation who ordered the hundred patients to be removed “to a ward in a good warm brick building.” I had been having a mortality of less than ten per cent. Under the most unfavorable circumstances as to complications, and when sixty of the hundred died in the “warm brick building,” it was quietly intimated to me that I had better put the remainder back in the old quarters. Unfortunately, the physicians had to live in the brick buildings and the mortality among them was great….
During my service in the hospital on Ward’s Island, I had to give up all part in Irish affairs in consequence of my exacting duties and the distance from the town….My experience of the suffering of Irish people after the famine in 1847 and 1848 to the present time had been one of sad remembrance….
‘No one has faithfully described the suffering among the Irish emigrants, at this period, during their voyage across the Atlantic and especially among the women, many of whom had been in good circumstances previous to the famine. There was no mitigation of the suffering of the people until definite action was taken by the United States Government to regulate the number of passengers in proportion to the certain number of square feet of deck-room for each individual, and until the passage of a law forcing the owners of the vessels to furnish food, and to adopt a number of sanitary measures. Previous to this law the suffering endured was greater than on any slave-ship, and the death-rate was larger than it would have been from any pestilence on shore. In the beginning there was no limit to the number of passengers received to satisfy the greed of the ship-owner, so long as deck-room could be found; and all were expected to supply their own provisions. All, as a rule, were in the prime of life but there were very few whose vitality had not been already impaired by the famine before sailing. Through ignorance, and often from want of means the supply of provisions laid in for the voyage was deficient in quality and lacking in quantity. The result was that in a few weeks, if typhus fever had not been contracted before sailing, the supply of food would become exhausted before even half the voyage had been accomplished. For the remainder of the voyage a very limited quantity from the ship’s stores would be doled out with a grudging hand. The article generally furnished was meal, from ground Indian corn, which was always more or less damaged, and with inadequate if not absence of facility for cooking, together with a scanty supply even of drinking water, the victims soon suffered from dysentery as a preparative stage for typhus, a disease also known as “ship-fever.”
With persistent sea-sickness, the herding together of the sexes as so many cattle, with no privacy nor means for making any attempt at cleanliness of either person or surroundings, it naturally followed that gradually the amenities of civilized life were lost, so long before reaching port, the hopeless condition of survivors became one of extreme imbecility of both mind and body.
The early emigrant ship was not always seaworthy and generally could be used in no other trade. Through the penurious practice of the owners they were never properly equipped and always short-handed, and relied upon such aid as the male passengers might give. Consequently these vessels were frequently from 150 to 160 days making the voyage, and often after sighting land they would be driven back by adverse winds nearly across the Atlantic again. No emigrant ship then carried a physician, and there was no help for those stricken with fever; all were too sick or indifferent to give much care to others. The mortality, therefore, was great, and the writer can recall hearing of several instances where one half of the passengers had died and been thrown overboard before the voyage was concluded. The most pitiful circumstance, and one that happened not infrequently, was the death of all the adults of a family, leaving a child too young even to know its name. As young children did not suffer much from fever, many instances occurred where every other member of a family died on a voyage and the child remaining could never be identified. It was not in my line of duty to board on arrival at an Irish ship, but the fever wards were under my care and it was my duty to take charge of these cases as soon as they could be carried to the hospital. It was seldom that any passengers, male or female, on these early ships could obtain privacy enough to change their undergarments from the beginning to the end of the voyage and gradually they grew sick and indifferent and would be brought ashore weeks afterward unconscious from the fever, starved, and in a greviously filthy condition. From the boarding-officers I received the most graphic accounts of the conditions found. Often for a month or more before the arrival of an emigrant ship the suffering was great from want of a sufficient supply of food and fresh water, as has been stated; consequently at the time of coming into port the proportion of sick emigrants and sailors would be greater than at any other time during the voyage. Generally on arrival all remained below in a helpless condition, as many had been for days without the slightest care. On opening the hatches the health-officer was frequently compelled to have the fire-engine pump started that, by the means of a stream of water, the deadly atmosphere between the decks, like that of the coal-pit, might be sufficiently purified to render comparatively safe the undertaking of moving those below.
In the foulest stench that can be conceived of, so soon as the eyes had become accustomed to the darkness prevailing everywhere but under the open hatch, a mass of humanity, men, women, and children would be seen lying over each other about the deck, often half-naked, many covered with sores and all with filth and vermin to an incredible degree; the greater portion stupefied or in a delirious condition from typhus or putrid fever, cholera, and small-pox; all were helpless and among them were often found bodies of the dead in more or less advanced stages of decomposition.
Such a sight would surely prompt any being, above the brute, to call aloud to the Great God for vengeance upon those who rendered possible in any country a condition so destructive of life, that the people in their flight would prefer even such an alternative as this!’ *….
In all the long list of horrors which the Irish people have endured from English instigation, during the past six hundred years, nothing ever equalled the cold-blooded and brutal treament from which the fever- and famine-stricken people of Ireland suffered at this period….
I served as Resident Physician in the Emigrant Refuge Hospital, Ward’s Island, for three years, having had in that time under my charge about eleven thousand miscellaneous cases, including all the eruptive fevers among adults and children, with over nineteen hundred cases of adult males suffering from ship-fever. I got also some surgical experience and served my time in the obstetrical department, where from five to ten women a day were delivered. The intern was in full charge of the practice for about twenty-two hours out of each day, and whenever the Visiting Physician was not on duty. I frequently volunteered in the Pharmacy, and after my regular work was finished, I served many hours at night helping to put up prescriptions….In addition, as part of my volunteer work, I made fully one thousand post-mortem examinations….
During my service in the hospital I took no holiday, and with the exception of about three months and a half, while I was sick with ship-fever, I was on continuous duty fo three years in a service from which a number died and many were obliged to resign in consequence of impaired health. Yet I had a great deal of recreation, pleasure, and time for reading. We enjoyed some social advantages among the families of the employees and we were on good terms with the school “marms” on Randall’s Island. Some of these ladies were comparatively young and many of an uncertain age, but the Bohemian life they led brightened them up, so that they were companionable. I recall a pleasant occasion in a return ball the physical of Ward’s Island gave to the “young ladies” on Randall’s Island….
We had found quite a number of expert fiddlers among the Irish patients, who had convalesced, so that as the Quaker expresses it in some play, they continued to “rub the tail of the horse on the bowels of the cat” all night. The ball began at eight o’clock and, as I came naturally by my fondness for dancing, for both of my parents were experts in the Terpsichorean art, I led off with the first dance. I started with a new pair of pumps and danced the last set at daylight in my stocking feet.
During my first winter I built, after my own design, a sailboat about nineteen feet long, beginning with the centre-board box and building out from that to the stern and bow. It was said that I disregarded all rules applicable to boat-building, and yet I turned out a so-called nondescript, which I used for two years. She was so active in her movements that I, with professional bent, christened her “Senna and Salts.”
… About two weeks before the expiration of my service as one of the Resident Physicians, my Visiting Physician resigned. To my astonishment and satisfaction I received in a few days an official communication from the Board of Commissioners of Emigration notifying me that I had been appointed a member of the Visiting Board of Physicians, and I was informed that the election had rested on my record of service. I was twenty years the junior of Dr. J. M. Carnochan who had been the youngest member of the Board, and at that first meeting I became the secretary. My salary as Visiting Physician was four dollars a day, on which I soon married. With the prospect of building up a practice, I was fully contented when I was so fortunate as to receive twenty-five cents cash for a visit among the tenement houses, then situated along the East River below Fourteenth Street. I received about fifty dollars for my first year’s work in private practice, but after that time I advanced rapidly.
*section in quotes is from T.A. Emmet’s Ireland Under English Rule (NY: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1903) reproduced in Incidents of My Life, pages 138-140.