This Was Then: The Hospital


The Martha’s Vineyard Hospital opened in 1922 on Eastville Avenue in the former home of Capt. Hiram and Charlotte Daggett. But this was not the first hospital on Martha’s Vineyard, nor were the series of marine hospitals which preceded it. Our first public hospital was actually an experimental and highly controversial institution dedicated to smallpox inoculation.

Smallpox visited the Island with tragic regularity during the colonial era, and none worse that the epidemic of 1763-4. A catastrophic disease decimated the Wampanoags that same winter which many historians believe was also smallpox. Thirty-nine Vineyard Wampanoags died, mostly on Chappaquiddick, as did two-thirds of the Native American population of Nantucket (some 222) sealing the fate of their long-term survival as a people on that island.

The Town of Tisbury responded to the unfolding tragedy in 1763 by granting arriving physician Dr. Samuel Gelston “Liberty to Carry on Inoculation of the Small Pox at Homses Hole” provided that he would take local smallpox victims into his care, and that he would pay the town six shillings for every non-resident he inoculated. It was among the very first such inoculation hospitals opened in colonial America. The exact location of Dr. Gelston’s hospital is forgotten, but his contract with the town was renewed again the next year. Dr. Gelston practiced an experimental and quite controversial procedure known as “variolation” – the inoculation of a healthy patient with a (hopefully) weak strain of live smallpox virus in a controlled setting. The death rate from variolation was a sobering 2-3%, but it provided long-term immunity to a scourge which would ordinarily kill 20-30% of its victims.

In 1771 Dr. Gelston constructed a new hospital on Gravelly Island, a now-vanished islet between Muskeget and Tuckernuck off the west coast Nantucket, but at that time technically a part of Edgartown. Residents of Nantucket, unnerved by this new institution and fearful of an accidental outbreak, petitioned the Commonwealth to annex Gravelly Island to Nantucket in order to stop Dr. Gelston’s experiments. The colonial authorities responded by prohibiting all inoculations on Gravelly Island, and in 1778 Nantucket authorities purchased Dr. Gelston’s buildings for the tidy sum of £1000, and unhesitatingly razed them. (Another century passed before Muskeget and Gravelly Island were formally taken from Edgartown and given to Nantucket; Gravelly Island has since been lost to erosion.)

Undeterred, Dr. Gelston erected his next inoculation hospital at Cape Poge. It only lasted a few months before Edgartown authorities changed their minds; it may have been responsible for the 1778-9 outbreak which killed Rev. Samuel Kingsbury of Edgartown’s Congregational Church as well as Tashmoo farmer Seth Daggett, who ironically had been on the town committee charged with monitoring the doctor’s original experiments in Holmes Hole.

The Martha’s Vineyard Hospital has occupied its current location since 1929.

Chris Baer teaches photography and graphic design at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. He’s been collecting vintage photographs for many years.