Biography of Lillian Wald

Commentary by Dr. Gerhard Falk


Lillian D. Wald (1867 - 1940)  

Lillian D. Wald was the originator of public-health nursing and the founder of the Visiting Nurse Service in New York City. She also initiated the first public-school nursing program in the United States and founded the Henry Street Settlement in New York City.

Wald was born on March 10, 1867, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the third of four children in the second daughter of Max D. and Minnie Schwartz Wald. Wald's father moved his family from Cincinnati to Rochester, New York, when Wald was still a young child, hence, she viewed Rochester as her home town. A dealer in optical goods, Max Wald descended from a long line of German-Jewish scholars, rabbis, and merchants. Jewish as well, her mother's ancestors were Polish and German. Wald's grandfather, Gutman Schwartz, lived with the family for several years and had a great deal of influence on her.

Because her father's income was good, Wald was educated in an expensive private school. She learned to speak both French and German. She applied to Vassar College in 1883 but was turned down because she was too young. Instead she traveled for six years and briefly worked as a newspaper correspondent.

In 1889 Wald met a nurse who had been trained at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. This nurse influenced her to enter the nursing profession and she enrolled in the two-year nursing program at New York Hospital in August 1889 at the age of 22. She graduated in March 1891, having had the benefit of guidance by the program's director of nursing, Irene H. Sutliffe.

After graduation from nursing school, Wald entered the Women's Medical College to study for an M.D. degree. She also volunteered her services as a home nurse among the immigrants moving into the lower east side of New York City. Having been trained in a “hands-on” setting it New York Hospital, Wald felt neither degraded nor diminished by her work among the poor.

Wald determined that the poor on the lower east side needed immediate help. She left medical school in 1893 and moved into a house on Jefferson Street in order to help the poor within her own community. She began her work with the aid of her friend Mary Brewster, whom she had known at the New York Hospital. Two years later in 1895, Wald in Brewster moved into a nearby house on Henry Street and from there organized services and programs that became the model for similar settlements in the United States, Canada, and Europe.

At the turn of the century and for some time thereafter, over 90% of the sick stayed home. Poor people had no money to pay physicians, and hospitals were reserved for extreme cases and generally did little good. Therefore, the Henry Street Settlement was useful not only in that it served Wald and Brewster in bringing nursing services to the poor, but it also served as a means of promoting education, recreation, housing, and relief for the unemployed in the neighborhood. In short, it grew into a multiple-service agency.

Although a few denominational groups had made similar efforts, their work was directed only at members of the denomination offering the service and depended on the occasional efforts of part-time volunteers. Wald and her associates were able to conduct their visiting-nurse activities on a full-time basis because they lived in the neighborhood where the services were needed and because they offered these services without respect to religion or race.

Their efforts attracted others to their cause. Betty Loeb, the wife of one of New York City's financiers, became interested in the activities of Wald and introduced her son-in-law, Jacob Schiff, to buy the house on Henry Street for Wald and her visiting nurses.

In 1893 when Wald moved to Henry Street, she had 10 associates, nine of whom were trained nurses. In 1900 there were 15 nurses, and by 1906 there were 27. During those years, New York City received an average of 20,000 immigrants per day.

The nurses from the settlement received $60 per month, money contributed by the Loeb in Schiff families. Wald was known as a successful fundraiser, and her enterprise continued to grow. By 1913 the Henry Street Settlement had seven houses in two uptown branches. Three years later in 1916, 250 visiting nurses were seeing 1300 patients per day, and the membership of the visiting nurse service had grown to nearly 4000. Wald administered a budget of $600,000 per year, all from private contributors. Wald was able to raise large sums in part because she was able to appeal to potential contributors by dealing with individual cases and was able to convey to others a willingness to serve.

The projects and ideas developed by Wald over the years were varied and original. In 1902 she succeeded in persuading the New York City Board of Education to hire school nurses for the first time. Directly thereafter, she persuaded President Theodore Roosevelt to support the establishment of the Federal Children's Bureau in an effort to protect children from the practices of child labor, which she attacked vigorously in an article in the American Journal of Nursing in 1906. The Federal Children's Bureau finally came into existence in 1912 during the administration of William Howard Taft. That same year, Wald founded the Town and Country Nursing Service of the American Red Cross.

Only two years earlier in 1910, Wald had persuaded Columbia University to appoint her friend Mary A. Nutting as the first professor of nursing, thus establishing the first nursing department in any American institution of higher education. She also succeeded in convincing the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company to institute a nursing service for its industrial policyholders. In 1909 she organized the first conference on the prevention of infant mortality at New Haven, Connecticut.

Although Wald considered all of her activities as nursing services and although she objected to being viewed as a social worker, she was nevertheless responsible for several programs beyond the usual scope of nursing. As early as 1900, she educated for better laws to assure alimony payments for abandoned women. In August 1914 she organized a march against World War I, an event that led the Daughters of the American Revolution to list are as dangerous. She also helped found the Women's Trade Union League in 1903 to protect women from the horrors of the sweatshops of that era.

Wald used to Henry Street Settlement in several different ways. It served as a recreation center for neighborhood families, with swings and other equipment for the use of children. She organized upgraded reading classes for children who needed help, joined Elizabeth Farrell in introducing special school classes for “backward” children, and opened study rooms, where she helped children with homework after school. In 1906 she found that the Vocational Guidance Committee at the Henry Street Settlement.

Wald opened a convalescent home in South Nyack, New York, in 1899, and campaigned in speeches and in writing against the practice of boarding out babies, a practice to which the poor often resorted to alleviate their financial needs. Wald promoted the use of foster homes as a solution. She taught immigrants to save money and supported the cause of organized labor by demanding medical inspection of industry in order to ensure adequate ventilation and other health needs of workers and to prevent the use of child labor. She visited industrial executives and argued for the advantages of ventilation and medical services in factories on the grounds that changes in these areas would save them money.

Wald served on many committees. As early as 19, she served on the so-called Pushcart Commission in New York City, whose purpose it was to rid the poor neighborhoods of the pushcarts that were not allowed in wealthier areas. She chaired the nurses' emergency council of the Atlantic division of the Red Cross during the influenza epidemic of 1918 and the Red Cross committee on home nursing during World War I. In 1919 she represented the United States at the Committee of Red Cross Societies in Cannes, France. Together with Florence Kelley, she founded the National Labor Committee in 1924.

The influence of Wald was worldwide. In 1924 she visited England, Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union. Later, she visited Mexico. Wherever she went, she carried the message of public-health nursing. Having refused marriage, Wald had devoted herself entirely to the needs of others. She inspired others to work with her and succeeded in many of her causes because people wanted to do things for her, even if they were not completely convinced of the cause itself. During her lifetime she received the Gold Medal of the National Institute of Social Sciences (1912), the Rotary Club Medal, and the Better Times Medal.

In 1925 Wald began to suffer from heart trouble and anemia. Nevertheless, she continued her rigorous schedule until 1932, when she was forced to reduce her workload because of an operation from which she never fully recovered. In 1933 she gave up her position as head worker at the Henry Street Settlement and moved to Westport, Connecticut. There she wrote her second book, Windows on Henry Street, in which she described her career since the publication of The House on Henry Street in 1915. In 1937 she gave up her position of president of the board of the Henry Street Settlement.

Walt died at her Connecticut home on September 1, 1940. Her ashes were buried in the family plot in Rochester, New York.

In September 1971 a bronze bust of Wald was placed into the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at New York University.

Shalom u’vracha.

Dr. Gerhard Falk is the author of numerous publications, including Football & American Identity (2005) &  Youth Culture and the Generation Gap (2005) with Dr. Ursula A. Falk.

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