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8.12.7 Elda Remembers The Eye Exam
Elda Del Bino Willitts recalls how others explained the eye exam while on the steamship travelling to America from Italy in 1916.
The medical exam at Ellis Island was relatively brief when compared to that at Angel Island. Only 1 to 2 percent of the people who came through Ellis Island were not allowed to enter, sometimes due to a physical handicap or disease. What do you notice about how thorough Elda’s exam was? Elda arrived in the United States from Italy with her mother and six siblings. After she landed in New York, she and her family took a train to California to join their father and oldest brother. The father and brother had arrived in San Francisco in 1912, four years before the rest of the family. Frequently, those who could hope to earn good wages because of their age and strength traveled first to the United States and set up a home before bringing other members of the family from Europe.
Doctors at Ellis Island were given the task of determining (in a very brief exam) whether a person had a contagious disease or had a physical or mental handicap. People with contagious diseases could be sent to a quarantine center until they were well. Doctors left a chalk mark on the person’s coat that indicated any such challenges. The immigration inspectors were then left to decide whether to admit the person or reject entry, knowing that the law required them not to admit people who for physical or mental reasons would not be able to take care of themselves.
When I got on the boat, I was only five and this little, this gentleman who had been back and forth several times, and well my mother took a liking to him because he was so knowledgeable about it. He spoke Italian. And so he took me on a walk one day and he said, "You know what? When you get over to Ellis Island they're going to be examining your eyes with a hook," and he says, "Don't let them do it because you know what? They did it to me one eye fell in my pocket. (Paul laughs) So you can imagine how I entered this...So we get over there and everybody has to pass and I'm on the floor screaming. I passed without a physical. I passed the eye test because the other seven passed.