Lillian D. Wald
Lillian Wald was a pioneer in the field of public health nursing, choosing to focus on helping Eastern European Jewish immigrants who were crowded into New York’s Lower East Side. Known as the “Angel of Henry Street,” she dedicated her life to creating a more just society, to ensure that women and immigrants, people in poverty, and members of all ethnic and religious groups would have the opportunity to realize America’s promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Lillian D. Wald was born in 1867 in Cincinnati Ohio to Max D. Wald and Mini Schwartz, who emigrated to the U.S. from Germany. Much of her childhood was spent in Rochester, NY, where her family was well-off and assimilated. The Walds were members of Rochester’s Reform Temple, Berith Kodesh, and Lillian was raised in a liberal Jewish atmosphere.
As a young adult, Wald became friends with a nurse taking care of her ill sister, and decided to enroll in nurse’s training at the Bellevue School of Nursing in New York City. Disappointed in her nursing job at an orphanage, she enrolled in medical school. She also began teaching a class on nursing, encouraging young immigrant girls to become nurses. Her life direction changed one day when a small child came to the class and asked for help for her sick mother. Lillian was appalled by the filthy, unsanitary conditions in which immigrants lived in the tenements on the Lower East Side. She was convinced that the nurses relationship with the community should constitute the starting point for health care, rather than waiting for sick patients to seek care. Wald secured funding from wealthy philanthropists for two nurses to live and work in the tenements, with a focus on preventive health. She left medical school in 1893, and with her friend, Mary Brewster, moved into a house in the tenements, starting a nursing service which offered the first visiting nurses in the world. In 1895, they purchased a house at 265 Henry Street, known as the Henry Street Settlement House, to serve as the headquarters. Henry Street nurses eventually cared for 4500 local residents. Wald began to teach her ideas to others as well; as a result of her nursing lectures, the Teachers College at Columbia University established a department of nursing and health. In 1902, she initiated the first American public school nursing program in the New York City schools.
On a broader scale, Lillian Wald sought to bring social justice to people throughout her ever-expending neighborhood, by addressing social causes of poverty. Working with neighborhood residents, the Henry Street Settlement House organized girls’ and boys’ clubs; taught classes in arts and crafts, English, homemaking, and drama; offered vocational guidance and training; and held social events. She spearheaded campaigns for playgrounds and parks and better housing. Although Wald was not religiously observant, she regarded her settlement work as suffused with spirituality in striving for a world of good will and humanitarianism.
Lillian Wald’s political activities included service on various New York civic commissions to improve the lives of women’s working conditions and to fight against child labor. She also worked with others to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and served as honorary vice-chair of the New York State Woman Suffrage Party. Fearing increasing nationalism and anti-foreign sentiment, she opposed the entry of the United States into World War I. However, after the U.S. entered the war, Wald chaired various wartime nursing councils, including the Red Cross Nurses Emergency Council, formed in response to the 1918 influenza pandemic.
Wald’s work was memorialized throughout the twentieth century. She was chosen as honorary chair or adviser to nearly thirty state and national public health or social welfare organizations and won the gold modal of the National Institute of Social Sciences in 1912. To honor her role in founding the public health nursing profession, she received honorary doctorates from Mount Holyoke and Smith Colleges. In 1937, Henry Street celebrated Lillian Wald’s seventieth birthday by broadcasting a radio program during which Mrs. Sara Delano Roosevelt read a letter from her son, President Franklin Roosevelt, praising Wald for her “unselfish labor to promote the happiness and well-being of others.”
In 1933, Wald retired due to declining health and wrote two books: an autobiography and a collection of her thoughts about her life experiences. She died in 1940 in Westport, Connecticut at the age of 73.
In 1965, Lillian D. Wald was elected to the Hall of Fame of Great Americans at New York University, and she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, NY in 1993. Her greatest living memorial, the Henry Street Settlement—still stands on New York’s Lower East Side. It continues Wald’s path-breaking work by addressing the needs of its contemporary neighbors, advocating for the homeless, building HIV awareness, combating illiteracy, fighting domestic violence, and offering programs for youths and seniors.