by Johnathan Thayer, Archivist
The post-WWI shipping slump of the 1920s meant more sailors out of work and “on the beach,” a problem that only got worse with the 1929 stock market crash and the ensuing decade of Depression. For those with medical problems, being out of work meant being excluded from Marine Hospitals, which only provided treatment for seafarers whose discharges were less than 60 days old. Having launched KDKF and the Medico rooftop radio medical program in 1920 and published the Manual on Ship Sanitation and First-Aid for Merchant Seamen in 1922, the Seamen’s Church Institute (SCI) was looking to do more for seafarers in need of medical attention.
In a 1927 letter to SCI President Edmund Baylies, Superintendent the Rev. Archibald R. Mansfield put his opinion succinctly, “Having solved as far as possible the problem of incapacitated seamen afloat, I believe you will agree with me that it is now our duty and privilege to provide adequate facilities for serving them ashore.”
SCI installed an outpatient Medical Clinic for seafarers on the first floor mezzanine of 25 South Street in 1925. Staff members from the Public Health Service provided care, as they had in previous incarnations of the Clinic, drawing a letter from the Surgeon General of the United States praising SCI’s commitment to medical care for seafarers. SCI later opened an Ear-Nose-Throat Clinic.
A $300 gift from the appropriately named James Barber enabled SCI to open up the Barber Shop at 25 South Street in 1915. An article from February of that same year in The Lookout celebrated the positive effect that a good haircut could have on a sailor: “It had never ceased to appeal to the Lookout as one of the most efficient workers for increasing the sailors’ self respect.”
SCI’s William D. Tracy Dental Clinic opened on July 13, 1931, named for the clinic’s first supervisor. The Dental Clinic helped active merchant seafarers, many of whom had been turned down for jobs at sea due to their poor teeth. The Clinic charged low rates and offered free exams, along with advice on diet and proper care of teeth. According to The Lookout, word began to spread among seafarers that SCI offered the best dental care available out of the many ports that they routinely visited.
The Eye Clinic opened soon after the Dental Clinic on October 30, 1931, in response to an epidemic of sailors who had become “disabled,” according to the shipping companies, due to their poor eyesight. During World War II, the Eye Clinic fitted heaps of donated glasses with lenses for quick transfer to merchant mariners who were off for their next assignment at sea.
ALCOHOLICS ASSISTANCE BUREAU
SCI had been dealing with the “alcohol problem” since the Institute’s founding. In 1912, when 25 South Street opened, Ms. Augusta Morris de Peyster donated money for a set of bedrooms that would cater to the old stereotype, the “drunken sailor.” The rooms had lower beds so that a seafarer could easily flop into them after a hard night and drinking fountains for the morning after.
The AAB operated in cooperation with the Seamen’s Branch of Alcoholics Anonymous in “efforts to rehabilitate merchant seamen suffering from alcoholism.” The Bureau prepared a pamphlet for distribution to seafarers that included a section on “12 Step Work at Sea.” SCI opened a Club Room for Alcoholic Seamen in 1954, following the model of Alcoholic Seamen’s Clubs that were active in more than 20 American port cities. A pamphlet from the New York Alcoholic Seamen’s Club emphasizes the seafarer’s ability to help himself and his fellow sailors:
“Don’t let the word club fool you. We have no fancy rooms, no pool tables or billiard rooms. We’re a bunch of guys who have come to realize that booze has been getting the best of us and are banding together to do something about it… The only persons who really understand alcoholism are the alcoholics themselves. That’s one reason we’ve banded together—to pool our ideas. Another reason is that there is strength in a group as in a convoy.”
Providing for the health and wellness of seafarers continues to be at the core of SCI’s mission. In addition to the ongoing Piracy Study conducted by the Center for Seafarer’s Rights, SCI has opened a fitness center at the International Seafarers’ Center in Port Newark where mariners in port can exercise and get a hot shower.