A Brief History of Marine Hospitals
Prior to the American Revolution, according to historian Harold Langley, merchant sailors from the colonies were required to pay into the British seamen’s hospital fund, even though they may have little opportunity to receive care at the famed institution at Greenwich.
Early American efforts to provide care to sailors was left to individual colonies and cities. For instance, as early as 1730 the Pennsylvania legislature instituted a tax to provide health care to sailors in hospitals, and in 1774 passed a law that provided for a quarantine hospital on Providence–now State–Island, as a means to prevent the entry of contagion into the port city of Philadelphia. This facility also cared for the sick and wounded of the Pennsylvania navy.
The maritime merchant community of Virginia early saw a need to provide for local care of their seamen, and they established a hospital near Norfolk in 1758-59 for this purpose. In 1780, Commonwealth of Virginia instituted a nine pence–raised to one shilling in 1782–per month tax on sailors and merchant seamen to fund the hospital. North Carolina instituted a similar program in 1789. That same year, the first Congress under the new Constitution took up the matter of establishing a hospital fund. Despite prodding from the Boston Marine Society and others, the matter, while brought up regularly, languished in one or another Congressional Committee until 1798, when finally, Congress enacted a law that required masters of every United States merchant ship returning for a foreign port, to pay 20¢ a month for every sailor in his employ to the port collector. These funds were to be funneled from the various ports to the Treasurer of the United States. The Act authorized the U S President to “provide for the temporary relief and maintenance of sick or disabled seamen, in the hospital or other proper institutions now established in the several ports of the United States.” Congress extended the law in 1799 to tax and care for U S naval personnel.
Where hospitals were not available, states, and later the federal government often paid individuals to care for sick sailors and merchant mariners in their homes, or cities for care in municipal hospitals. The National Institutes of Health website states that by 1802, the U S government operated marine hospitals in Boston; Newport; Norfolk and Charleston; and was contracting for the care of merchant sailors in Baltimore; New York; Philadelphia; Portland, Maine; New London, Connecticut; Wilmington; New Bern and Edenton, North Carolina; Alexandria, Virginia; and Savannah.
While the earliest efforts to provide for sick and injured sailors were concentrated on ports of the Atlantic coast, by 1845 increasing commercial seagoing traffic on the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes led to the planning and construction of Marine Hospitals in Natchez, MS; Paducah, KY; St. Louis, MO; Napoleon, AR; Pittsburgh, PA and Cleveland, OH.
The Marine Hospital Service and Marine Hospitals are the precursor of today’s Public Health Service.
U S Marine Hospital, Louisville, Kentucky
The Marine Hospital, Louisville, Kentucky opened its doors in 1852. It cared for Union sailors early in the Civil War, but was closed during much of that conflict. After the war, the hospital undertook the care of sailors under direction of the Sisters of Mercy until 1875, when a reorganized Marine Hospital Service undertook operation of the facility.
The hospital ceased functioning as such in 1933, and has served in a variety of roles since. In 2003, the National Trust for Historic Preservation named the old hospital on its Eleven Most Endangered Places list; the same year, the National Park Service granted it “Save America’s Treasures” status. Since 2004, Louisville residents have been working to restore and preserve the 150 year old historical structure. You can read more about their ongoing efforts a the hospital’s website.