Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Luck of the Irish at Ellis Island

A while back I noted that the lion's share of Ellis Island is, in fact, in New Jersey. The man-made South Side of the island was constructed to house the immigrant hospital where tens of thousands of recent arrivals were nursed to health in anticipation of their eventual admission to the United States.

Mentioning Ellis Island usually raises thoughts of those immigrants' travails, but as a volunteer for the National Park Service and its non-profit partner Save Ellis Island, I share the story of the hospital's dedicated staff of Public Health Service physicians and nurses. It wasn't until I started researching the women doctors who practiced there that I found an instance where the two intersected: a child of immigrants who showed how quickly American families can rise from humble immigrant roots to make a positive impact on our country.

Dr. Rose Faughnan Ellis Island
Dr. Rose Faughnan in a 1922
passport application photo.
Rose Cecilia Faughnan was born on August 23, 1873 in Newark, the daughter of Irish immigrants, Timothy Faughnan and Mary Farley Faughnan. While the year of her mother's crossing is unclear from census records, her father came to the United States as a young boy in 1847. It's pretty safe to assume that both sets of Rose's grandparents were protecting their children from the devastation of the potato famine ravaging the country in the late 1840s.

The Faughnans had five other children besides Rose: Timothy, John, Elizabeth, Marie and Anna. By 1900, Mary had died and apparently the 27 year old Rose remained in the household to care for her siblings and father. Ten years later, she's listed on the census as a medical student, but she wasn't the only one with ambitions. Her brother John is listed as a law student, her brother Timothy as a dentist, and sister Anna as a teacher. Clearly, they'd been encouraged in their studies and prompted to do the most they could with their intelligence and capitalize on every opportunity.

By 1914, Rose had earned her degree from the Medical College of Baltimore and was the second female doctor to practice at the Public Health Service (PHS) hospital on Ellis Island. Private sector employment was still difficult for women physicians to secure, but the PHS understood their value in an environment where many female immigrants were both suspicious and fearful of men. The doctors at Ellis were required to wear uniforms, an intimidating sight for people who didn't speak English and may have been escaping persecution from the military in their home countries. Dr. Faughnan and her fellow women doctors (up to four by 1924) were a calming influence and could perform the sometimes invasive examinations that were necessary to determine immigrant patients' medical status.

After leaving the PHS and Ellis Island, Dr. Faughnan served the Newark Public Schools and St. James Hospital in the Ironbound. She died of pneumonia and bladder cancer on March 26, 1947, having made a positive impact on thousands of people during her medical career. It's a safe assumption that many Americans wouldn't be here today had she not diagnosed, treated and cured their immigrant forebears.

I was reminded of Dr. Faughnan and her parents after reading an essay written by a more recent immigrant. Barry O'Donovan noted that while the Irish have been beset by some devastatingly bad circumstances over the centuries, there are those who turn misfortune into success through hard work and persistence. The luck of the Irish, it seems, isn't so much lucky as it is well earned.


  1. I cannot believe that I found this! I am the granddaughter of John Faughnan, Rose's brother. Aunt Rose has long been a legend in our family. My mother, Rose Cecilia Faughnan Stuart, could add to this history. At some point after leaving Ellis Island Aunt Rose ran her own small hospital in Passaic. I have often suspected that it was because (as a female) she had difficulty obtaining an appropriate job. You are correct about the emphasis on education in the family and that has not changed two generations later!

    1. Gina, I'm so glad you found this post and left your message! I'd love to hear more about your Aunt Rose. Please contact me at . Thanks!


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