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Lillian D. Wald

founder of Henry Street Settlement House as a place for tenement dwellers to get health care

Lillian Wald

Lillian D. Wald was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, on March 10, 1867, the third of four children born to German-Jewish immigrants Max D. and Minnie (Schwarz) Wald. Max Wald was a successful optical goods merchant, and Lillian was raised in an atmosphere of privilege and social standing. In 1868, the family moved to Rochester, New York, where Lillian was educated at Miss Cruttenden's Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies. After graduating in 1883, Lillian applied to Vassar College, but she was turned down because of her age (she was only 16).

Early Nursing Career

Soon after being rejected by Vassar, Lillian attended the birth of her sister Julia's child, and it was this event that inspired her to become a nurse. In 1889 she enrolled in the nursing program at the New York Hospital Training School, from which she graduated in 1891. After graduating, she became a professional nurse at the New York Juvenile Asylum, an orphanage for children between the ages of 5 and 14. She soon became disillusioned with the Asylum's institutional methods of caring for children, however, and left after about a year to enter the Women's Medical College in New York City.

Henry Street Settlement House

In 1893, Wald agreed to teach a class in home nursing and hygiene to immigrant women on New York City's Lower East Side. One day, while she was teaching, a little girl approached Wald and asked her to attend to her sick mother. Wald agreed, and as the girl led her through one filthy street after another Wald decided that she would dedicate her life to improving the health and welfare of the tenement community. Leaving her medical training, she and Mary Brewster, a close friend and colleague, moved into a tiny space on the top floor of a tenement and established the Visiting Nurses Service.

By January 1894, the two had visited over 125 families, and had offered advice to many more. In 1895, a generous donation from Jacob Schiff allowed the women to move to 265 Henry Street, where they established the Henry Street Settlement House. By then Wald had coined the term "public health nurse" to refer to nurses who worked outside hospitals in poor and middle-class communities, and she and Brewster had recruited several other nurses to help them with their work. Specializing in both preventative care and the preservation of health, these nurses responded to referrals from physicians and patients, and received fees based on the patient's ability to pay.

In addition to improving the health of those living in tenements, Wald also wanted to improve their environment. To that end, one of her first Henry Street projects was to transform its snall backyard into a playground. She then helped to found and was an active member of the Outdoor Recreation League, which focused attention on the need for public parks and playgrounds. The League raised funds for the improvement and upkeep of Seward Park, which later became the first municipal playground in New York City.

Under Wald's direction, Henry Street constantly expanded as the needs of its surrounding community changed. Over the years, its nursing, club work, and dramatic activities were supplemented with vocational training for boys and girls, a library and study, and a savings bank, and in 1904 it built Clinton Hall, a public meeting and social space. Branches were also opened in and around Manhattan and the Bronx, some specifically designed to serve the Italian, Hungarian, and African-American communities. By 1903, eighteen district nursing service centers were treating 4,500 patients a year. Sick women, children, and workers were sent to Settlement "convalescent" homes on the Hudson River, and children took summer field trips to a Settlement-owned farm in Westchester County.

In 1915, at the peak of her career, Wald published the history of Henry Street and her work in The House on Henry Street, which became a classic for generations of nursing, sociology, and social welfare students. In that same year, Henry House's one hundred nurses cared for more than 26,575 patients and made more than 227,000 home visits.

Advocate for Nursing Standards

In 1899, Wald helped initiate a series of lectures to educate prospective nurses at Columbia University's Teachers College, and this series led to the formation of the University's Department of Nursing and Health in 1910. In 1912, the need for the establishment of professional standards for public health nurses led Wald to help establish the National Organization of Public Health Nurses (NOPHN), which was designed to set professional standards, share techniques and protect the reputations of its members. Wald subsequently served as the organization's first president.

Advocate for Children

In 1900, Wald convinced the New York City Board of Education to hire Elizabeth Farrell, a Henry Street resident, to teach special education classes for children with learning disabilities and physical handicaps. In 1902, she pressured the Board to provide school nurses and succeeded in having Lina L. Rogers, a Henry Street nurse, hired as New York City's first public school nurse. In her first month, Rogers treated 893 students, made 137 home visits, and helped 25 children who had received no previous medical attention recover and return to school. Shortly thereafter, the Board of Health hired its first fleet of twelve school nurses. In 1908, she successively lobbied for regular school lunches for every child in the public school system. In that same year, she was also instrumental in getting the New York City Board of Education to establish a Department of Special Education.

In 1904, Wald joined the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), a group of Progressive reformers working to abolish child labor, promote children's health, and to reclaim children who dropped out of school. After determining that any proposed changes would work only if legislated and enforced by the federal government, Wald conceived of the Federal Children's Bureau in 1905, and then lobbied for it tirelessly until it was finally established in 1912. In 1919, Wald represented the Federal Children's Bureau at a Red Cross conference in Cannes, France where "health and child welfare for almost the entire world were discussed."

Advocate for Women

In 1903, Wald helped found the Women's Trade Union League (WTUL) to investigate women's working conditions and promote the creation of women's trade unions. She later became a member of the executive committee of the New York City League.

Advocate for Workers

When New York Governor Charles Evans Hughes visited Henry Street in 1908, Wald told him about the exploitation experienced by her immigrant neighbors. In response, Hughes appointed her to a commission to investigate the "condition, welfare, and industrial opportunities in the State of New York." Wald and the other commission members traveled 1,286 miles in fourteen days to investigate working conditions among immigrant laborers at highway and canal project camps. Their report, which called for the creation of improved living and working standards for the workers and their families, led to the formation of a State Bureau of Industries in New York.

In 1909, Henry Street and Metropolitan Life became partners in an effort to provide quality health care to employed workers. The success of this partnership inspired hundreds of other insurance companies to initiate similar projects.

In 1910, under terms of an agreement that ended a strike by cloak makers, an agency called the Joint Board of Sanitary Control was established to monitor standards of ventilation, fire protection, pollution, lighting, and sanitation in manufactories. Wald served on the board and spoke out against unsafe working conditions. She also supported the elimination of exploitative home work programs and the establishment of a minimum wage for women workers.

In 1912 she visited striking mill workers in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and offered Henry Street's support.

In 1919, a year marked by several massive massive coal, steel, and other industrial strikes, Wald publicly defended workers' rights as a member of President Woodrow Wilson's Industrial Conference.

Advocate for Civil Rights

An active supporter of efforts to improve race relations, Wald made sure that her settlement houses not only provided services, but also employment, for members of all racial and ethnic groups. She insisted that Henry Street's classes be racially integrated, and Stillman House (later known as Lincoln House), the branch of Henry Street which served the African-American community, was known for its extensive research on the lives of blacks. Her most notable work for civil rights, however, was her institutional involvement with the National Negro Conference, a gathering held at Henry Street that became the founding meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Advocate for Peace

When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, Wald joined the Women's Peace Party and joined 1,500 other women in a "peace parade" down New York City's Fifth Avenue. In that same year, she, Hull House founder Jane Addams, and others formed the American Union Against Militarism (AUAM), which argued that war threatened social progress, and ran counter to faith in "civilized relationships between nations." After the U.S. joined the war, Wald abandoned her anti-militarist stance but remained affiliated with the Foreign Policy Organization (FPO) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) daughter organizations of the AUAM.

During the war, Wald spent her time shuttling back and forth between New York and Washington. In New York, she volunteered Henry Street as the headquarters for wartime Red Cross and Food Council drives and spearheaded the New York City branch of the Children's Bureau Baby Saving Campaign. In Washington, Wald served as chair of the Committee on Home Nursing for the Council of National Defense. The Spanish influenza epidemic outbreak of 1918, however, captured Wald's undivided attention, and she focused her efforts on recruiting and rallying support for treatment centers that she established throughout New York City.

In 1919, Wald attended the second International Conference on Women for Peace in Zurich, where members of the Women's Peace Party voted for the League of Nations and endorsed gender equality and woman suffrage. The Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, in which Wald played a leadership role for many years, was founded at the Zurich conference.

Later Life

Wald's health began to fail in 1925, but she continued to work as much as she could. After suffering a debilitating stroke in 1933, she retired to Westport, Connecticut. With time to record her thoughts, she wrote Windows on Henry Street (1934), which detailed the changes to the Lower East Side and Henry Street over the decades Wald had resided there. She died in Westport on September 1, 1940, and her cremains were interred at Mount Hope Cemetery, Rochester, New York.

Jewish Women's Archive
National Women's History Museum

Henry Street Settlement House
Visiting Nurse Service of New York

New York City
President Woodrow Wilson
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
World War I
Jane Addams

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This page was last updated on March 10, 2018.