Lillian Wald was born into a German-Jewish middle-class family in Cincinnati, Ohio; her father was an optical dealer. In 1878, she moved with her family to Rochester, New York. She attended Miss Cruttenden’s English-French Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies. She applied to Vassar College at the age of 16, but the school thought her too young. In 1889, she attended New York Hospital’s School of Nursing. She graduated from the New York Hospital Training School for Nurses in 1891, then took courses at the Woman’s Medical College. She wanted to enter Medical School, but instead enrolled at New York Hospital’s School of Nursing. Later, Ms. Wald recruited another nurse, Mary Brewster, and they made themselves available to anyone who needed help. They charged very little for their services and gave freely to those who could not afford to pay. Many times they would spend the night with a sick patient, and they would often fetch surgeons to come when a patient was too ill to be moved.
Wald also taught women how to cook and sew, provided recreational activities for families, and was involved in the labor movement. Out of her concern for women’s working conditions, she helped to found the Women’s Trade Union League in 1903 and later served as a member of the executive committee of the New York City League. In 1910, Wald and several colleagues went on a six-month tour of Hawaii, Japan, China, and Russia, a trip that increased her involvement in worldwide humanitarian issues.
In 1893, Wald and Brewster created the Henry Street Visiting Nurse Service, which became the major model for visiting nursing in the United States. Their headquarters at 265 Henry Street became the Henry Street Settlement House. In 1898, they had a staff of eleven full time workers, nine of them nurses, and by 1916 there were more than one hundred nurses.
Lillian Wald persuaded the city to begin a program of public nursing and the Board of Education to put nurses into the public schools. She spoke out against the popular movement to restrict the immigrants, viewing the immigrants’ culture as a valuable contribution to the American way of life. Ms. Wald was appointed to several government committees, and also found time to help found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She labored for better conditions for pregnant workers and to abolish child labor.
Lillian D. Wald died on September 1, 1940, in Westport, Connecticut. Her accomplishment in the fields of health and public service show what how large a difference one person can make. Some of the programs she started are still running today, such as the Henry Street Settlement and her visiting nurse service in New York
The Henry Street Settlement still stands on New York’s Lower East Side, now serving the neighborhood’s Asian, African-American, and Latino population. And today, with over 9,500 highly skilled care providers, the Visiting Nurse Service of New York is the largest not-for-profit home health care agency in the nation, making over two million professional home visits to more than 100,000 patients each year.
Lillian Wald was elected to the Hall of Fame of Great Americans in 1965; she was inducted into the American Nurses Association Hall of Fame in 1976, and was honored by the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1993.
In a speech to Vassar students on October 12, 1915, Ms. Wald encouraged the young women to serve the public. She quoted from Proverbs 31:20, “She reacheth forth her hands to the needy.”
Lillian Wald’s Quotes:
“Reform can be accomplished only when attitudes are changed.”
“Ever since I have been conscious of my part in life, I have felt consecrated to the saving of human life”
“Women are here to reaffirm their protest against war, to restate their unalterable faith in the righteousness of Peace.”
“The task of organizing human happiness needs the active cooperation of man and woman: it cannot be relegated to one half of the world.”