Jacksonville history buffs easily recall vessels like the Maple Leaf, Three Friends, Commodore, and May Garner. But the Ernest Hinds? This ship has sunk below the depths of local history, yet it once fulfilled a vital — and uncommon — role: The Hinds ranked as America’s largest & busiest treatment center for venereal disease. It achieved this distinction after dropping its gangplank on Jacksonville’s Northbank on July 1, 1946.
WHY THE HINDS? — If you had told the former passengers of the Hinds what would become of the vessel in Jacksonville, they may not have believed you. The Hinds could once boast of being one of the most luxurious passenger liners afloat, according to the Florida Times-Union on May 21, 1946. It’s easy to imagine well-heeled men in tuxedoes and ladies in evening gowns promenading on moonlit decks and tangoing on a dance floor.
Before its glory days as a passenger liner, though, the Hinds began life as a U. S. Navy transport. While under construction for the Grace Steamship Company in 1917, the vessel, to be named the Santa Teresa, was requisitioned by the Navy. At the conclusion of World War I in 1918 & 1919, the craft was used to bring American soldiers back from Europe. The ship measured 373 feet long and cruised at a rate of 12 – 13 knots.
In 1920, the U. S. Government finally sold the vessel to Grace Steamship. The Santa Teresa plied as a passenger liner between California and the west coast of South America. In 1936, the ship was sold to Merchants & Miners Transportation Company. Renamed Kent, it carried passengers along the Atlantic Coast.
Although the U.S. had not officially jumped into World War II, the Army purchased Kent in April 1941 and renamed it the Ernest J. Hinds. It did this in honor of Major General Ernest Hinds, who had been the Chief of Artillery for the American Expeditionary Forces during the First World War. The military converted the Hinds back into a troop transport, and during WWII, it served in this function and as a hospital ship. It was also briefly transferred to the Navy, which renamed it Kent. The vessel’s hospital fittings remained intact.
After the conflict ended in 1945, the Hinds transported Jamaican laborers between the West Indies and Florida. The ship was later transferred to the U.S. Public Health Service. In July 1946, she sailed into Jacksonville as a treatment center for venereal disease cases.
A MOST UNUSUAL SHIP–The hospital ship drew patients in droves. From across Florida, they arrived and departed in buses and station wagons furnished by the State Board of Health. Indeed, medical officials expected a yearly case load of 12,000 patients, who would usually live onboard for nine days during treatment. The state government operated the vessel, which replaced several VD treatment centers. One overcrowded facility had operated at the Duval County Hospital, situated where the Shands Jacksonville hospital now stands on West 8th Street. Other treatment centers had been located near Ocala and in Pensacola and Wakulla. A disaster at the Ocala facility prompted the State to request and receive control of the Hinds to battle sexually transmitted diseases. As explained in the 1946 Annual Report for the Florida Board of Health, “In April, 1946, a major fire destroyed half of the hospital at Ocala, necessitating a curtailment in admissions to that center. After this catastrophe, negotiations were started to acquire a new rapid treatment center, which finally culminated in the acquisition of the Ernest Hinds Hospital Ship…”
Along with laboratories, the Hinds boasted complete facilities for examinations, operations, and X-rays. It was also equipped with lounges and dining areas. The State Board opened the ship to public inspection soon after it moored in the River City. According to the Florida Times-Union on May 15, 1946, the Hinds might prove part of a national experiment to determine the use of surplus hospital ships from the military. The Army released only one other hospital ship for public service, and it was assigned to New York City. The Times-Union didn’t specific what its duties were.
AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION IS WORTH … — One shot every two hours? This was the standard fare for VD patients aboard the Hinds. No doubt this dismal regiment of injections got old fast. However, treatment on the ship required only nine days, as opposed to the 72 weeks that used to be needed for VD treatment.
The first real cure for syphilis came during World War II. The wonder drug penicillin was introduced in limited amounts for clinical trials in 1943, and it was produced in massive quantities in 1944. It sparked revolutionary changes in the control of infections and venereal diseases. A year after the war ended in 1945, penicillin became available to VD clinics, according to Millstones and Milestones, a 1964 Florida Board of Health publication.
It was planned that the Ernest Hines would provide treatment for advanced syphilis. This disease could result in some pretty ugly consequences, including blindness, heart disease, and mental illness. According to the Florida Times-Union on June 3, 1946, the effects on a victim’s mind could even lead to commitment to the “State Hospital for the Insane” (now the Florida State Hospital), located in the panhandle town of Chattahoochee. Florida’s VD program had been mostly limited to finding and treating the early cases of syphilis. However, more than 600 advanced cases of the disease were reported to the state’s medical officers in 1945, almost double the number of the previous year. Due to a lack of space, though, few of these sufferers could be assisted at the VD treatment centers.
WHY THE RIVER CITY? — Jacksonville played host to the Hinds for good reason: During the 1940s, Florida sometimes led the nation in VD rates. The national average for syphilis hovered around 45 cases per 1,000 men examined. In Florida, however, the statistic held at about 157 per 1,000 adult males. Alarmed, the state government tried to remedy the situation. Among other things, it initiated intensive educational programs, established live-in treatment centers, enlarged and improved its laboratories, and distributed drugs to medical people who attended to indigent patients. The state also passed more stringent premarital and prenatal laws in 1945, requiring candidates for marriage licenses to have their blood tested, for instance. After the Navy expressed concerns about Pensacola’s prostitution in about 1940, state & local officials eliminated most of Florida’s red-light districts by 1946.
The Sunshine State suffered high STD rates due to several factors: (1) The military stationed legions of men here, taking advantage of the weather. (2) Particularly after WWII, both tourists and homeless people came south, seeking warmth during the winter. (3) Relatively large numbers of poverty-stricken people resided in Florida, including migrant workers. The rates among the lower income groups tended to be higher, according to Millstones and Milestones, a 1964 State Board of Health publication.
SAILS INTO THE SUNSET — After serving in Jacksonville for only seven months, the treatment center on the Hinds had to shut down in February 1947. A budget crunch proved the culprit. In its 1947 Annual Report, the Board of Health explained that the problem had been “the lack of funds to maintain the Rapid Treatment Center for the remainder of the fiscal year 1947…” The Board also noted, “The lack of funds not only affected the in-care treatment of venereal disease patients but also drastically curtained the purchase of drugs for out-patient treatment… We were fortunate during the year in that there were no exceptional outbreaks of communicable diseases…”
The Board decided not to use the hospital ship again. Although the Hinds offered a capacity for 500 beds, it couldn’t accommodate the flood of people seeking help. According to the 1947 Annual Report, “Due to the administrative impossibilities on the Ernest Hinds, it was deemed necessary to find a land base facility.” The Naval Air Station at Melbourne looked like a good candidate. It had opened in 1942 during World War II, but closed after the conflict’s conclusion. As indicated in the Annual Report, “The Naval Air Station Hospital at Melbourne was finally secured for the Rapid Treatment Center and the program began operating again in July (1947).” Consequently, the treatment facility functioned in “better quarters,” becoming the “chief bulwark in the venereal disease control program in Florida.” According to the Times-Union on July 5, 1947, moreover, the Melbourne center proved more centrally located than the previous treatment facilities.
Whatever happened to the Ernest Hinds? It doesn’t seem to have done much of anything anymore. The vessel was transferred to the Maritime Administration in April 1947 and laid up at Brunswick, Georgia. A year later, it was laid up at the National Defense Reserve Fleet, James River, Virginia. The ship’s final days came in May 1957, when it was scrapped for its parts.
~written by Glenn Emery