Immigrants coming to the New World from Europe had to run a gauntlet of tests at Ellis Island, the main federal immigration station in the U.S. from 1892 to 1954. In charge of the tests were the officers and men of the U.S. Public Health Service.
If incoming ships showed no sign of endemic disease, they were allowed to land. Medical tests for individuals began as soon as they hefted their luggage up the stairs to the registry room: those who arrived huffing and puffing were pulled aside for further health checks. Diseases such as trachoma (an eye disease that is now rare) or other ailments considered back then to be serious and incurable would be sent back to their port of origin right away; those who were ill might have to wait until they were healthy to be admitted to the country.
The immigrants were interviewed to weed out political and social undesirables: communists, anarchists, bigamists and those who seemed too poor to support themselves (a larger problem for women and children) were turned away.
Our article from January 9, 1915, highlights a third hurdle for the immigrants, tests for cognitive ability: “The purpose of our mental measuring scale at Ellis Island is the sorting out of those immigrants who may, because of their mental make-up, become a burden to the State or who may produce offspring that will require care in prisons, asylums, or other institutions.” Anyone who had a “suspected mental defect” or who showed “definite signs of mental disease” were given these tests that we can readily recognize as intelligence tests. Federal law in 1915 required that anyone who failed the tests be turned away.
Our article was authored by Dr. Howard A. Knox of the U.S. Public Health Service. He is widely credited with being a pioneer in developing intelligence tests. He also had some connections with eugenics, now considered to be a wholly unsavory branch of scientific research.
The process sounds frightening—and many people were indeed scared—and perhaps 20 percent of immigrants were detained for testing or while recuperating from illness. In the end, though, only about 2 percent of those people coming to seek a new life were eventually turned away for any of the above reasons.
This article was originally published with the title "50, 100 & 150 Years Ago" in Scientific American 312, 1, (January 2015)