Monday, November 26, 2018

Maritime Infirmary

In 1828 a contract was executed for a maritime infirmary near Ocracoke Inlet.  Dr. James W. Potts was awarded the position of physician in Portsmouth village at a salary of $1,500 per year. Dr. Potts soon realized that maintaining a hospital at this remote location, even with a private practice on the side, was not worth the trouble and expense he incurred. He transferred his contract to Dr. Samuel Dudley after 18 months.

According to an 1831 letter from Potts' half-brother, Joseph Hurtow, to Joshua Taylor, Collector of Customs at Ocracoke Inlet, Dr. Dudley's "hospital" was a dismal and pitiful operation. He describes it thus: "As to the hospital at [Port] Ocracoke, a small wooden house has been rented and occupied for the purpose at $30 to $40 per year. The house stands about two feet above the level of the ocean and not to [sic] far from it's margin, upon the Portsmouth Banks and on the naked sands, without the benefit of shade. The house itself is 16 to l8 feet by 20 or 22 feet in size, without plastering or as I believe glass windows. About six cots, a pine table or two and a few benches or chairs, and the furniture of the hospital has been described."

Potts says there is "no cistern to contain fresh water" and asserts that "how sick seamen now fare in regards to dirt, cleanliness, nursing or medical assistance, I do not know...."

Potts then goes on to suggest that the hospital be re-located to Ocracoke and the contracts for "Keeper of the Hospital and Keeper of Ocracoke Light House" be united. Hurtrow then offers to assume those positions himself, and to use the lighthouse keeper's quarters for the hospital, explaining that "the house at the Beacon is at present of very little service -- because inhabited only, a great part of the time, by an old Yellow man*, left there to clean and light the Beacon and the keeper's residence...."  

Less than a month after Hurtrow's letter to Joshua Taylor, the Collector wrote to the Secretary of the Treasury that the hospital did have windows, and that the seamen were well provided for. Dudley's contract was renewed.

Finally, an 1842 act of Congress appropriated $8,500 to build a dedicated marine hospital on Portsmouth Island. A lengthy process of legal contortions over title to the land, planning, bidding, contracting, inspecting, and provisioning delayed opening of the hospital until 1847. This was a very substantial two-story structure, built on piers, with a fireplace in each room, primitive running water, spacious “piazzas” (porches), and separate quarters for the hospital physician, and at times, a “medical student.”

You can read an account of the hospital here:

*"Yellow man" is an offensive  term, typically used to belittle people of Asian descent. I have no evidence that Anson Harker (b. 1780 - d. 1847), the first person of record listed as Keeper of the Ocracoke Lighthouse, was Asian. Harker served 1829-1846.

This month's Ocracoke Newsletter is a chapter from Philip Howard's book, Digging up Uncle Evans, about the 1837 wreck of the Steamboat Home, one of the most horrific wrecks ever on the North Carolina coast. You can read it here:

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