Lillian Wald celebrates 26th birthday by opening settlement house
March 10, 1893
Born into a successful merchant family in Cincinnati, Ohio, on March 10, 1867, and raised in Rochester, New York, Lillian Wald is remembered today as the founder of public health nursing and an influential pioneer in the settlement house movement of the early twentieth century.
Trained as a nurse at the New York Hospital, Wald began medical school at the Women's Medical College in New York, but was soon sidetracked into what would become her life's work. During a class project organizing a course in home nursing for immigrant families, Wald discovered the dire need for basic health care among tenement dwellers. She left medical school, in 1893, in order to bring affordable health care to the needy of the Lower East Side. Together with her friend Mary Brewster, she founded the organization that became the Visiting Nurse Service.
The Nurses' Settlement opened on Jefferson Street on Wald's 26th birthday, March 10, 1893. Two years later, in 1895, she moved her enterprise to Henry Street. In both locations, the settlement was dedicated to public health nursing, a term Wald coined to describe an organic relationship between health care and broader community needs. In the first year, the settlement cared for 4,500 patients.
Recognizing the interconnectedness of illness and poverty, Wald expanded the activities of the settlement over time. The renamed Henry Street Settlement House offered boys' and girls' clubs; classes in arts, crafts, homemaking and English; and vocational training. Health care remained important, with over 26,000 patients cared for by 100 Henry Street nurses in 1915.
While running Henry Street, Wald also became involved in broader social welfare and political activities. In 1904, she helped found the National Child Labor Committee; she also spearheaded the campaign for a national Children's Bureau within the Department of Labor, which was created in 1912. She supported the Women's Trade Union League, worked on the New York Commission on Immigration, helped found the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and campaigned for women's suffrage. She was also active in peace work, becoming a leader in the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom.
Ill with heart disease, Wald retired from Henry Street in 1933, and died in 1940. Her tireless work on behalf of the poor, children, and women has been well recognized. She won the gold medal of the National Institute of Social Sciences in 1912, and New York City's distinguished service certificate in 1937. She was elected to the Hall of Fame of Great Americans at New York University in 1965, and inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in Seneca Falls, NY, in 1993.
Wald's greatest monument is in the continuing work of the institutions she founded. The Visiting Nurse Service of New York, which traces its origins to Wald and Brewster, offers regular care to 115,000 patients. Still in its original buildings on the Lower East Side, the Henry Street Settlement today serves its racially diverse neighborhood through AIDS education, domestic violence prevention, literacy training, advocacy for the homeless, and programs for youth and seniors.
To learn more about Lillian Wald, visit Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia and JWA's Women of Valor exhibit.
See also: Lillian Wald poster; Teach: Primary Sources and Lesson Plans, Letter from Emma Goldman to Lillian Wald, 1904 and Lillian Wald’s Sketches of the Henry Street Settlement, 1934; Jewesses with Attitude blog, 10 Things you should know about Lillian Wald.
See the location of the Henry Street Settlement at On the Map.
Sources: Clare Coss, ed. Lillian D. Wald: Progressive Activist (New York, 1989); Doris Groshen, Always a Sister: The Feminism of Lillian D. Wald (New York, 1989); www.henrystreet.org; Jewish Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia, pp. 1446-1449; Women of Valor; Beatrice Siegel, Lillian Wald of Henry Street (New York, 1983); www.vnsny.org/community/our-history/lillian-wald/.