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See the new home of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum

Photo courtesy of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum

Like Syrio Forel’s lesson to Arya Stark, a chief purpose of the Marine Hospital was to defy death. While the goal of any hospital is to restore health to its patients, marine hospitals of the early 20th century possessed some unique characteristics that made them more intense than a typical town clinic. As the Vineyard Gazette noted in 1930, “These vessels and ships came from all points along the American coast and very frequently carried a case or two of some disease picked up in the West Indies or southern ports.” Marine hospitals were, essentially, the emergency rooms and infectious disease wards of the sea. It therefore stands to reason that, in 1938, the Vineyard Gazette reported: “By day and by night, this quiet, pleasing looking building on the hilltop is the scene of many a conflict with death, wherein the grim destroyer is usually defeated, and the array of instruments and equipment installed there is well worthwhile, as many a man can testify after having been brought to port aboard a Coast Guard cutter that leaped and plunged through a wild sea for hours on her way in as she battled a gale, and who has been lowered, wrapped and lashed to a cot, into a waiting small-boat and finally landed in the hospital where calm efficiency has taken charge and skillfully treated crushed limbs or serious illness.”

By breathing new life into the old Marine Hospital, the Martha’s Vineyard Museum has, like Arya Stark and Syrio Forel before her, said “Not today” to death, albeit in a different guise.

The location of the Marine Hospital was chosen in large part for its proximity to Vineyard Haven Harbor and the wharf. The Vineyard Gazette described it as “A rather imposing structure, located upon one of the most sightly hills in Vineyard Haven. Designed primarily for the reception and treatment of seamen, a more suitable spot could scarcely be imagined, for a boat may land at the foot of the hill on which the hospital sits, and all movements of shipping may be observed from its wide, shady verandas or the windows in the wards.” While one is more likely to associate the importance of a building’s view with a hotel or resort than with a hospital, it seems considerate of the planners to provide patients with this panoramic vista. It also seems appropriate that the facility was built in a converted lighthouse. This literal beacon of safety evolved into a figurative one—one of hope, of the possibility of survival in a harsh world. As the Gazette stated, “The sufferings of these men were frightful indeed in many instances.”

According to historian Dr. Charles Banks, the hospital actually continued to help guide ships, for “A red lantern, suspended nightly from a flag staff of the hospital, acted as a substitute range light for entering the harbor.” Upon arrival in port, a horse-drawn ambulance carried patients up the hill for the first decade or so of the hospital’s operations. By 1930, however, the system had grown more efficient. The Gazette describes a typical situation involving a fisherman with a broken leg and lacerations sustained from an accident with machinery aboard his vessel, 100 miles out to sea. After communicating with the hospital, “All was put in readiness to receive the patient, and as the hour drew near a watch was kept for the lights of the cutter entering the harbor. When the boat drew alongside the wharf, the motor ambulance was waiting, its engine running, and with blankets and all necessities inside. Five minutes after landing, the man was in the hospital.”

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