Lillian D. Wald
1867 – 1940
In 1934, one year after she retired from her position as headworker of Henry Street Settlement House on New York’s Lower East Side, Lillian D. Wald recalled the lesson of her years there. “We have found,” she wrote, “that the things which make men alike are finer and stronger than the things which make them different, and that the vision which long since proclaimed the interdependence and the kinship of mankind was farsighted and is true.”
Wald began her voyage toward this vision in 1893, when she discovered the need for health care among New York’s largely Jewish immigrant population. Her solution to this problem, in the form of public health nursing, served only as the foundation of her life’s work, which spanned local, national, and international efforts to bring health care and, on a broader scale, social justice to people throughout her ever-expanding “neighborhood.” Wald’s dedication to the causes of nursing, unionism, tenement reform, woman suffrage, child welfare, and antimilitarism demonstrated her strong progressive faith in the ability of democratic institutions to realize the vision of a unified humanity.
Lillian D. Wald was born on March 10, 1867, in Cincinnati, Ohio, the second daughter and third of four children of Max D. Wald and Minnie Schwarz Wald. The Walds and Schwarzes descended from rabbis and merchants in Germany and Poland, both families having left Europe after the Revolutions of 1848 to seek economic opportunity. Max Wald prospered as a successful optical goods dealer, first in Cincinnati, then in Dayton, and finally in 1878, settling in Rochester, New York, which Lillian Wald considered her hometown. Wald recalled her mother, who married at sixteen, as friendly, warm, and kind; Max Wald was distant, practical, and quiet. The family home overflowed with books and music, and Wald recalled fondly the indulgence of her Grandfather Schwarz, himself a successful merchant, who told her stories and often brought the children presents. Though the Walds were members of Rochester’s Reform Temple B’rith Kodesh, Lillian Wald received no Jewish education and was raised in a liberal Jewish atmosphere.
Wald received her education at Miss Cruttenden’s English-French Boarding and Day School in Rochester. Demonstrating great skills in languages, the arts, math, and science, she applied to Vassar College at age sixteen but was refused because of her age. Wald continued in her studies and led an active social life until she felt the need for more serious work. In 1889, she enrolled in the nursing program of the New York Hospital training school. Upon her graduation two years later, she worked for a year as a nurse at the New York Juvenile Asylum but eventually left institutional nursing to become a doctor. Shortly after she began taking courses at the Women’s Medical College in New York, she accepted an invitation to organize classes in home nursing for immigrant families on the Lower East Side.
Wald experienced a “baptism of fire” into reform work during one of her classes, when a child led her to a sick woman in a dilapidated tenement. She saw “all the maladjustments of our social and economic relations epitomized in this brief journey,” and she became intent on her own “responsibility” to bring affordable health care to those on the Lower East Side. She left medical school and, with her friend and colleague Mary Brewster, moved to the College Settlement House on Rivington Street and then to a tenement house on Jefferson Street. In 1895, Wald took up residence at 265 Henry Street where she founded the Nurses’ Settlement.
Making health care her first priority, Wald pioneered public health nursing—and coined the name of the profession—with the idea that the nurse’s “organic relationship with the neighborhood should constitute the starting point for a universal service to the region.” The nurses operated on a sliding fee scale, so that all city residents might have access to medical attention. Nurses responded to calls from physicians, charitable agencies, and individuals in need. They kept daily records and offered educational classes. In 1905 alone, Henry Street nurses had eighteen district centers and cared for forty-five hundred patients. Wald also worked to extend the services of public health nurses. In 1902, she initiated the first American public school nursing program in New York City. In response to her idea, in 1909, Metropolitan Life Insurance Company began a nursing service for its industrial policyholders; other insurance companies soon followed that example. In 1910, as a result of a series of nursing lectures she organized, Teachers College of Columbia University established a department of nursing and health. The National Organization for Public Health Nursing, an association for a profession she herself had founded, chose Wald as its first president in 1912.
Though she was not familiar with the work of Jane Addams when she moved to the Lower East Side, Wald led the Nurses’ Settlement in the direction of a full-fledged settlement house—eventually changing the name to Henry Street Settlement—as she saw the social causes of poverty in the neighborhood. She supplemented the nursing service with programs for neighborhood improvement. Working with members of the neighborhood, the house residents organized girls’ and boys’ clubs as well as classes in arts and crafts, English, homemaking, and drama; they held social events; and rented out the newly built Clinton Hall for union meetings. The house provided vocational guidance and training, and Wald established a scholarship to allow talented boys and girls to remain in school until age sixteen. She spearheaded campaigns for playgrounds and parks, better housing, and to eliminate tuberculosis, called the “tailors’ disease” for its preponderance among Jewish immigrants, many of whom were garment workers.
Wald’s work with Eastern European Jewish immigrants appealed to the benevolence of New York’s German Jewish elite. Betty Loeb, who had funded the East Side nursing classes, and her son-in-law Jacob Henry Schiff, banker and philanthropist, provided Wald with the funds to move into 265 Henry Street. Many of New York’s prominent German Jewish families were benefactors of Henry Street, which relied on voluntary contributions for support.
While Henry Street was strictly nonsectarian, Wald saw her settlement work as suffused with spirituality, a “new impulse to an old gospel.” She subscribed to the idea of an evolution of organized religion to a code of ethical precepts. She saw her work as part of this gradual evolution in its strivings toward good will and humanitarianism. She expressed no particular religious connection between herself and the Jewish immigrants with whom she worked, but she embraced the contributions all immigrants made to society. Wald spoke out against Americanization programs that demanded the shedding of native cultures. She considered the newcomers’ traditions, art, and ideas “new life and new blood for America.” Wald came to see her primary task as that of an interpreter: In the movement toward “the fundamental oneness of humanity,” the settlement bridged boundaries of ethnicity, race, class, and immigrant generations.
Wald served as an advocate for her neighbors, speaking with the authority of one with “long and intimate acquaintance” with immigrants. In public and private correspondence, she upheld the immigrants’ rights to free speech and spoke of immigrant radicalism as another instance of their “passion for progress and justice.” Wald defended the character of the new immigrants and asked the mainly German Jewish upper-class audience to consider their own responsibility toward the swelling urban populations at the first convention of the National Council of Jewish Women in 1896. “If there is a strike,” she urged, “try to discover both sides of the question . . . not rejoicing in the workingman’s failure without understanding what was behind the discontent.”
Wald sustained loving friendships with a network of women, and she relied on her membership in coalitions of women reformers, male and female Progressive and Jewish philanthropists, in order to serve her neighbors’ interests through public and private institutions. With the approval of New York’s peddlers, who considered her their representative, she served on the Mayor’s Pushcart Commission in 1906. In 1908, she worked on the New York Commission on Immigration, which Governor Charles Evans Hughes formed upon her recommendation to investigate the living and working conditions of New York’s immigrants. The commission’s report led to the creation of the State Bureau of Industries and Immigration. The next year, Wald worked with Mary Ovington, Florence Kelley, Henry Moskowitz, and others to found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, offering up Henry Street for the organizing conference. During the garment strikes of 1910 to 1912, she worked alongside Schiff, Adler, Moskowitz, Louis Brandeis, and Morris Hillquit in arbitration efforts. In 1912, she served as one of three “representatives of the public” on the Joint Board of Sanitary Control of the Cloak, Suit, and Skirt Industry. The board’s report called for fire safety and sanitation measures, as well as protective legislation for pregnant workers.
Wald often focused her political energies on the interests of children and working women. In 1903, she supported organizing the National Women’s Trade Union League. A lifelong member of the New York Child Labor Committee, Wald, together with Adler, Kelley, and others, founded the National Child Labor Committee in 1904 to fight against child labor. Wald originated the idea for a national Children’s Bureau within the Department of Labor and worked unceasingly for its creation from 1906 until 1912. She turned down President Taft’s offer to be bureau chief in 1912, believing herself more useful at Henry Street. Though not a militant suffragist, Wald believed women had a “special contribution to make” to government as coordinators of “that portion of the political life that is related to human happiness”—the home and family. As honorary vice-chair of the New York State Woman Suffrage Party, she campaigned for the woman suffrage referendum in 1915, citing in editorials the overwhelming support among her working-class immigrant neighbors for the right to vote.
Wald feared the increasing nationalism and antiforeigner sentiment that accompanied the campaign for American entry into World War I. She viewed war as opposed to her vision of a unified humanity. As president of the American Union Against Militarism, she, along with Kelley, Addams, Amos Pinchot, Max Eastman, and others, lobbied the Wilson administration toward mediation and away from active involvement. She held fast to her pacifism even when some contributors to Henry Street protested her platform and withdrew support. After the United States entered the war, she fought against abridgments of civil liberties, especially those of immigrants during wartime. She served as chair of the committee on home nursing of the Council of National Defense and headed the Red Cross Nurses Emergency Council, formed in response to the 1918 influenza epidemic. Under her direction, Henry Street cleared all cases of influenza and mobilized the efforts of thousands of volunteers.
Wald’s political activities continued after the war. Her work with the American Union Against Militarism led her to contribute to the founding of the League of Free Nations Association, a forerunner of the Foreign Policy Association. She remained loyal to the Democratic Party’s progressive vision, though in 1912 Wilson’s refusal to support woman suffrage, and Wald’s belief that Progressive Party membership exacted “too great a price,” led her to reject both platforms. Wald supported Alfred E. Smith throughout his career—despite his opposition to Prohibition—as someone whose stand on social issues approached her own. She was friends with Eleanor Roosevelt and was enthusiastic about Franklin Roosevelt’s policies and his administrative appointments of many former Henry Street residents, including Adolph A. Berle, Jr., Frances Perkins, Henry W. Morgenthau, Jr., and Sidney Hillman. She believed that the ideas formulated experientially at Henry Street were being put to use in government. In 1936, in her final major involvement in an election, Wald cochaired the Good Neighbor League, which attracted independents to the Democratic ticket.
By 1936, periodic heart trouble and chronic anemia began to take their toll on Wald’s health. Her travels, which had included a world tour in 1910, a trip to discuss public health measures in Russia in 1924, and a vacation with Jane Addams in 1925, grew less frequent. In 1933, she resigned as headworker of Henry Street Settlement and retired to her house-on-the-pond in Westport, Connecticut. There, in 1934, she wrote the second of her two books—the first was an anecdotal autobiography, The House on Henry Street (1915)—a collection of her thoughts on her life experiences titled Windows on Henry Street. In 1936, she voiced her opinions on the growing antisemitism in Europe, stating that “wrong inflicted upon any one is a wrong done to all,” and reasserting her optimism that “common interests” would triumph over ignorance and hatred.
Wald’s work has been memorialized throughout the twentieth century. She was chosen as honorary chair or adviser to nearly thirty state and national public health and social welfare organizations and won the gold medal of the National Institute of Social Sciences in l912. To honor her role in founding the public health nursing profession, both Mount Holyoke College and Smith College granted her honorary doctorates in law. On her seventieth birthday, in 1937, a public gathering was held in her honor: Laudatory words from President Roosevelt and Governor Lehman were read, and Mayor LaGuardia granted her the city’s distinguished service certificate.
Lillian Wald died in Westport on September 1, 1940, at age seventy-three, after a long illness brought on by a cerebral hemorrhage. She was buried in Rochester, New York.
Wald’s compassion and good humor drew admirers and supporters from individuals in the many circles in which she traveled. Her confidence, administrative talent, and understanding of the social causes of poverty, together with her membership in the neighborhood she had chosen to join, inspired her to link efforts with her network of women and work toward a vision of a unified humanity. Public figures continue to memorialize Wald and her work. In late 1940, hundreds of her friends gathered in Carnegie Hall to honor her memory. In 1965, she was elected to the Hall of Fame of Great Americans at New York University. In 1993, she was inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, New York. Wald’s vision of a universal “brotherhood of man”—applicable to all peoples, of all backgrounds—allowed her to assume greatness among a generation of Progressive Era figures in the fields of public health nursing, settlement work, and social reform.
Wald’s greatest living memorials are her two institutions: the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, the nation’s largest not-for-profit home health care agency (which became independent in 1944) and Henry Street Settlement House. The Settlement still occupies its three original buildings on New York’s Lower East Side. Now serving the neighborhood’s largely Asian, African-American, and Latino population, the settlement continues Wald’s pathbreaking work with Jewish immigrants in the 1890s, working toward the realization of her vision of social justice and a unified humanity.
House on Henry Street (1915); Windows on Henry Street (1934).
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