Thursday, August 19, 2010

John M. Moriarty

Years Served: 1849 to 1863

One of the most challenging periods in the entire history of quarantine in Boston harbor occurred during the mass exodus of poor Irish following the potato famine that struck the Irish countryside in the late 1840s. It was during the height of this exodus that John M. Moriarty became port physician for the city of Boston. Appointed by Mayor John Prescott Bigelow on August 1, 1849 he endured 15 years of grueling work working on Deer Island soon after it became the city’s official quarantine station. Moriarty succeeded to this post after his brother died of a communicable disease during the height of the Irish migration to Boston. By law, Moriarty was required to live on Deer Island at a salary of $200 a year, a relatively low wage that had several perks including his own private residence and free board on the island. Moriarty succeeded Dr. Jerome Smith after his predecessor decided he had enough of the political micro-management that routinely resulted in countermanded or modified decisions by ward politicians with little or no understanding or concern for medical or public health issues which he faced. While Moriarty did not spend as much time in Boston harbor as Smith or Thomas Welsh, he maintained the third longest island tenure of all 19th century Port Physicians.

The Irish greatly admired Moriarty for his hard work and commitment to caring for a wide range of down and out immigrants at a time when ward politicians were all too happy to have these poor souls die in the harbor without setting foot in the city. During his island years he served as the superintendent of the quarantine hospital on Deer Island and as the physician to all city establishments located there including the House of Industry, House of Reformation and Quarantine station. Dr. Moriarty was a large man, weighing 300 pounds, extremely generous, a thorough gentleman with marked for his geniality. Apparently, in his earlier medical career in Gloucester his friends affectionately abbreviated his name to "Dr. Moriart." He was a successful physician, hard worker in the political arena and a member of the Democratic Party.

As port physician, Moriarty was required to board incoming vessels to ensure that no communicable diseases were imported from the tropics or European ports. Because of the cost and the strenuous work of rowing out to meet incoming vessels, Moriarty relied on the services of prison laborers, confined to Deer Island, who were forced to perform the menial work required to keep the quarantine station operational.

If the Port Physician found any “malignant” diseases such as typhus, dysentery, etc., the sick would be sent to the hospital and the vessel quarantined for three days. The Deer Island hospital admitted its first patients on 29 May 1847 prior to John M. Moriarty’s arrival on the island. At that time his brother Joseph managed the station and worked there until his death in December 1848 while battling typhus disease. Moriarty was the son of John Moriarty of Salem, Massachusetts and Abigail Moseley. Both he and his brother Joseph became physicians and both served as port physicians in Boston harbor.

In 1863, Moriarty was not re-elected to the office of port physician. On that occasion the Boston and Medical and Surgical Journal carried a feature story on his work. It stated, “In common with many of the profession and of the scientific community, we have to express our regret that the Board of Aldermen (by a majority of one vote only, we are glad to say) have concurred with the Common Council in the choice of a successor to Dr. John M. Moriarty as Port Physician. We have heard no grounds of objection against him, and we are not among those who believe that a change is always for the better, and that the judgment to be derived from long experience should go for nothing. We feel sure that if Dr. Stone, the new officer, and whom we hear well spoken of as a promising young physician, shall, after more years of experience and acquaintance with the duties of the office, attain to the popularity with which Dr. Moriarty has for the past fifteen years performed its functions, he will have every reason to be satisfied with his measure of success.”

Moriarty was appointed to this post when it was a dangerous one, and had just been made vacant by the death, by ship fever, of his brother, the first Physician at Deer Island. His administration of its affairs as Superintendent, under its various committees, has been marked by energy, industry, an amplitude of discretion, generous hospitality and good judgment, which have made the Institutions at Deer Island a favorite resort 'by all officers from other cities. Dr. Moriarty will carry with him into his retirement the best wishes of hosts of friends.”
He left office on June 22, 1863 after years of dedicated public health service.


1. Adams, George, The Massachusetts Register 1858, Serial Number 91, p. 231,

2. Pringle, James, History of the town and city of Gloucester, Cape Ann, Massachusetts, 1892, p. 108. Accessed online at:

3. Moriarty, G. Andrews, Captain Joseph Moseley of Salem and his Ancestors, Essex Institute Historical Collections, Salem, MA, Vol. 49, 1913, p. 183.

4. Non Re-Election of Dr. Moriarty, Boston Medical and Surgical Journal, Vol. 68; No. 22, July 2, 1863, p. 449.

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