Lillian Wald, 1867-1940

  • Lillian-Wald-WWP

Woman Category: Activism & Feminism and HealthWoman Tags: 19th Amendment Centennial Anniversary, Nurse, NYC Women, and Suffragist

  • HerStory

    A nurse, social reformer, suffragist, peace and civil rights activist. The founder of the Henry Street Settlement and several health organizations in the US.

    Lillian Wald was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to a liberal Jewish family. When she was 11 years old, the family moved to Rochester, New York, where she attended a private boarding school. From a young age, she excelled in math, science, arts, and languages, and at 16, she applied to Vassar College but was rejected because of her young age. At age 22, she witnessed a nurse assisting her sister to give birth, and she decided to become one. She attended the New York Hospital’s School of Nursing, and then, the Woman’s Medical College. She worked at the New York Juvenile Asylum, taking care of the orphans as well as teaching a home nursing class for poor immigrant families in the Lower East Side, NYC.
    Wald was determined to bring affordable health care to those in need. She left school and moved to a room in the Lower East Side so she could be close to her patients. She coined the term “Public Health Nurse” to describe her work with the community and began to advocate for nursing in public schools. Her efforts led the New York Board of Health to establish the first public nursing system in the world, and Wald was appointed as the first president of the National Organization for Public Health Nursing. She promoted a national health insurance plan and established a nursing insurance partnership with an insurance company, which later replicated to other corporate projects.
    Wald believed that every city resident is entitled to health care, regardless of race, gender, or social status. That in mind, in 1895, she founded the Henry Street Settlement – a not-for-profit organization providing health care, social services, nurses’ training, and educational programs for the community. Within 13 years, the organization had 18 district centers, and by 1913 it had branches throughout NYC, taking care of thousands of patients. The settlements also provided employment opportunities for women, enabling them to have a career outside the house and become independent.
    In 1902, Wald initiated the first American public-school nursing program in NYC. She founded the National Child Labor Committee as well as the Women’s Trade Union League and served on its executive committee. Wald was one of the founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and held its first public conference at the Henry Street Settlement. In 1915, she co-founded the Henry Street Neighborhood Playhouse for the theater arts.
    Ahead of her time, Wald was an early advocate against child labor and was one of the Child Labor Committee’s prominent leaders, promoting federal child labor laws. As a women’s rights activist, she organized campaigns for NYC suffrage, and as a pacifist, she argued against the entry of the US into WW1, joined the Woman’s Peace Party, co-founded the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and served as president of the American Union Against Militarism. But when the US entered the war, she chaired the American Red Cross Committee on Community Nursing and represented the US at International Red Cross meetings.
    In 1933, after suffering a stroke, she retired to her house in Westport, Connecticut. She died at 73 of a cerebral hemorrhage.
    A few months after she passed away, more than 2000 people attended her memory ceremony at Carnegie Hall, in which the president, governor, and mayor delivered massages in her memory. In her lifework, Wald paved the way to the public health care of today.

    “Reform can be accomplished only when attitudes are changed”

    “Reform can be accomplished only when attitudes are changed”


    More Interesting Anecdotes:

    • She helped to found the first academic nursing school at Columbia University.
    • She published two books on community health work in the settlement house – The House on Henry Street (1915) and Windows on Henry Street (1934).
    • She never married; her letters reveal that she felt intimate affection for at least two of her women companions.
    • She is depicted in the novel Sue Barton, Visiting Nurse by Helen Dore Boylston.
    • The Lillian Wald Houses on Avenue D in Manhattan were named in her honor.
    • Her bust, sculptured by Eleanor Platt, is on display at the Hall of Fame for Great Americans in NYC.
  • More About Her Legacy

    * The Lincoln Medallion for her work as an "Outstanding Citizen of New York" (1922)
    * Elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans (1970)
    * Inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame (1993)

  • Watch and Learn More

  • One of Her Landmarks

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  • VNSNY Healing At Home

    VNSNY's founder Lillian Wald and her legacy on helping all New Yorkers.

  • Lillian Wald portrait by Willian Valentine Schville. Presented at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC. Photo credit - WWP team.

  • Citations and Additional References:
    Henry Street Settlement website.
    Wikipedia page.