I’ve always been sort of obsessed with the islands off the coast of Maine, and I’d especially like to see Widow’s Island, but I can’t find it on a map. Maybe I should just get in a canoe off Penobscot and start paddling:
Richard J. Kahn, M.D., practices internal medicine in Rockport Maine and is on the clinical faculty of University of Vermont and Dartmouth Medical Schools. Current projects include a paper on Noah Webster’s efforts in the field of epidemiology circa 1800 and publication of an annotated transcription of the manuscript, Diseases of the District of Maine by Jeremiah Barker (1752-1835). His most recent publication: “William Withering’s Wonderful Weed” appeared, with chapters by a number of Oslerians, in Clio in the Clinic, edited by Jacalyn Duffin in 2005.
Widow’s Island is a fifteen-acre island in the Fox Island Thoroughfare off Rockland, Maine. Today the island appears untouched by anyone but vacationers. As unlikely as it may seem, in the late 1880s the U.S. Navy built a two-story, brick, fifty-bed yellow fever quarantine hospital on this little island between Vinalhaven and North Haven. Certainly Maine has never been a hotbed of yellow fever. Why was the hospital built in Maine at this time and place, who were the people involved, and what happened to the facility over its forty-year lifespan and beyond?
Yellow fever was active in Latin America. In the 1880s, attempts to build the Panama Canal led to the US Navy to dispatch troops to the region. In 1883 a group of residents near the Portsmouth Navy Base petitioned the Secretary of the Navy, protesting the presence of infected vessels in Portsmouth Harbor. The then Secretary of the Navy William Eaton Chandler (1882-85), who was born in Concord, NH, decided to build a new quarantine station among the islands off the coast of Maine and ordered a search for a suitable location.
Though major ports did have quarantine stations by this time, some Navy surgeons believed that certain patients, particularly those with yellow fever, could best be treated if they were isolated in a sparsely settled, cool climate. Maine certainly fitted this description, and there had been no actual epidemics in the state. In 1884 the US Lighthouse Board, which had jurisdiction over Widow’s Island, offered it to the Navy Medical Department.
This paper will discuss the issues involved with the community response, building, and functioning of the hospital, which never actually admitted a yellow fever patient. Formal control of the hospital passed from the Navy to the State of Maine on June 1, 1904, marking the end of the Naval Hospital on Widow’s Island. For more than ten years thereafter the building was used as a summer retreat for selected patient from the Augusta and Bangor Insane Hospitals.