Lillian D. Wald (1867 – 1940) — Nurse, Social Worker, Women’s Rights Activist and Founder of Henry Street Settlement
Introduction: Lillian D. Wald was a nurse, social worker, public health official, teacher, author, editor, publisher, woman’s rights activist, and the founder of American community nursing. Her unselfish devotion to humanity is recognized around the world and her visionary programs have been widely copied everywhere.
She was born on March 10, 1867, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the third of four children born to Max and Minnie Schwartz Wald. The Walds and Schwarzes descended from rabbis and merchants in Germany and Poland, both families having left Europe after the Revolutions of 1848 to seek economic opportunity. Max Wald prospered as a successful optical goods dealer, first in Cincinnati, then in Dayton, and finally in 1878, settling in Rochester, New York, which Lillian Wald considered her hometown. Wald recalled her mother, who married at sixteen, as friendly, warm, and kind; Max Wald was distant, practical, and quiet. The family home overflowed with books and music, and Wald recalled fondly the indulgence of her Grandfather Schwarz, himself a successful merchant, who told her stories and often brought the children presents.
Lillian Wald received no Jewish education and was raised in a liberal Jewish atmosphere. Wald received her education at Miss Cruttenden’s English/French Boarding and Day School in Rochester. Demonstrating great skills in languages the arts, math, and science, she applied to Vassar College at age sixteen but was refused because of her age. Wald continued in her studies and led an active social life. Wald decided to travel, and for six years she toured the globe and during this time she worked briefly as a newspaper reporter. In 1889, she met a young nurse who impressed Wald so much that she decided to study nursing at New York City Hospital training school. She graduated and, at the age of 22, entered Women’s Medical College studying to become a doctor. She worked at the New York Juvenile Asylum and helped with a class about home nursing for poor immigrant families in New York’s Lower East Side.
Career: Shortly after she began taking courses at the Women’s Medical College in New York, she accepted an invitation to organize classes in home nursing for immigrant families on the Lower East Side. Wald experienced a “baptism of fire” into reform work during one of her classes, when a child led her to a sick woman in a dilapidated tenement. She saw “all the maladjustments of oursocial and economic relations epitomized in this brief journey,” and she became intent on her own “responsibility” to bring affordable health care to those on the Lower East Side. She left medical school and, with her friend and colleague Mary Brewster, moved to the College Settlement House on Rivington Street and then to a tenement house on Jefferson Street. In 1895, Wald took up residence at 265 Henry Street where she founded the Nurses’ Settlement. Making health care her first priority, Wald pioneered public health nursing – and coined the name of the profession – with the idea that the nurse’s “organic relationship with the neighborhood should constitute the starting point for a universal service to the region.” The nurses operated on a sliding fee scale, so that all city residents might have access to medical attention. Nurses responded to calls from physicians, charitable agencies, and individuals in need. They kept daily records and offered educational classes. In 1905 alone, Henry Street nurses had eighteen district centers and cared for forty-five hundred patients. Wald also worked to extend the services of public health nurses. In 1902, she initiated the first American public school nursing program in New York City. In response to her idea, in 1909, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company began a nursing service for its industrial policyholders; other insurance companies soon followed that example.
In 1910, as a result of a series of nursing lectures she organized, Teachers College of Columbia University established a department of nursing and health. The National Organization for Public Health Nursing, an association for a profession she herself had founded, chose Wald as its first president in 1912.
Though she was not familiar with the work of Jane Addams when she moved to the Lower East Side, Wald led the Nurses’ Settlement in the direction of a full-fledged settlement house – eventually changing the name to Henry Street Settlement – as she saw the social causes of poverty in the neighborhood. Ms. Wald was also an early advocate for the creation of the National Federation of Settlements.
Wald’s commitment to improving children’s lives extended to expanding their educational and recreational opportunities as well. The Henry Street Settlement was home to the largest playground on the Lower East Side. Wald also pressured the New York City board of education to offer educational opportunities for children with physical and learning disabilities, to hire nurses for the schools, and to establish school lunch programs for all children.
Although the Henry Street Settlement was the first and best known, branches were opened throughout Manhattan and the Bronx to provide health care, community programs, and employment to New Yorkers regardless of race or ethnicity. Wald made the Henry Street Settlement available as the meeting place for the National Negro Conference, which became the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Wald was also a suffragist who worked to secure the right of women to vote and supported her employee and protégé, Margaret Sanger, in her battle to give women the right to birth control. She fought for peace, leading several marches in protest of World War I. But when war became inevitable, she pitched in to do her part as Chairman of the Committee on Community Nursing of the American Red Cross. She also helped chair the Red Cross campaign to wipe out the influenza epidemic of 1918 and represented the U.S. at International Red Cross meetings.
Wald also took on major industries, lobbying for health inspections of the workplace in order to protect workers. She also advocated that employers protecting the health of their employees made good business sense. She encouraged them to implement preventive medicine and to have nursing or medical professionals on the work site at all times.
Another of her major achievements was persuading Columbia University to appoint the first professor of nursing at a U.S. college or university. Until that time, nursing had been taught in hospitals and consisted largely of supervised work experience. Thanks to Wald, most
nursing education now takes place in universities, augmented by practical experience in a teaching hospital.
In 1922, The New York Times named Wald as one of the 12 greatest living American women and she later received the Lincoln Medallion for her work as an “Outstanding Citizen of New York.”
Sources: Visiting Nurses Society of New York: www.vnsny.org/community/our-history/lillian-wald/
Jewish Women’s Archives, University of Minnesota Social Welfare Archives