Helen Goldmark Adler
Helen Adler was an active philanthropist who dedicated her intelligence and compassion to improving turn-of-the-century New York. Adler helped her husband Felix establish the first model tenements at Cherry Street as well as the first free kindergarten in America, called the Working Man’s School, and later the Ethical Culture School at Fieldston. She took an active part in the visiting nurses’ service for the poor at the DeMilt Dispensary, the oldest clinic in the city, which Felix had initiated in 1877. With the assistance of a Dr. Koplik, she helped cut the infant death rate by having milk bottled safely at the Laboratory Department for Modified Milk for Tenement Babies, which Koplik and Adler founded in 1891.
Although as accomplished and intelligent as her well-known husband Felix, Helen Adler did not strive to forge an independent name for herself. Her hard work and accomplishments, however, benefited the many people with whom she came into contact throughout her life.
Early Life and Education
Helen Goldmark was born September 4, 1859, the eldest daughter of Regina (Wehle) and Joseph Goldmark, both of whom had immigrated to the United States in 1849. Her mother came from Prague with her affluent Jewish family, and settled in Madison, Indiana. Born in Poland, her father was educated in Hungary and at the University of Vienna medical school, and he had been a member of the Austrian parliament. He played an important part in the failed Revolutions of 1848, after which he fled the country. In 1868 amnesty enabled him to return to Austria and clear his name of criminal charges. Instead, he immigrated to the United States and lived out his life in Brooklyn. There, he built his medical practice and continued his chemistry research, which led to several patents. One of these allowed him to manufacture superior percussion cartridges for the Union Army during the Civil War, a coup for both his business and political loyalties. Several of Helen’s nine siblings, notably Pauline, Henry, and Josephine [Goldmark], achieved prominence in their respective fields, and her other sister, Alice Brandeis, married the Supreme Court justice.
Helen, nicknamed “Nell” or “Nellie,” attended the Brooklyn Heights Seminary and passed Harvard’s entrance exam, although at that time women could not attend Harvard. She was an extremely intelligent and articulate writer, and could write fluent German, excellent French, and some Italian. Her father embraced a rationalist anticlericalism, and so the family did not regularly attend synagogue, but Helen and her sister Christine often went to Dr. John M. Chadwick’s liberal Unitarian church in Brooklyn. There she introduced herself to Felix Adler, the young philosopher and founder (1876) of the nascent Ethical Culture Movement , when he came to preach in 1879. They were married on May 24, 1880.
After her marriage, Helen Adler involved herself in the Ethical Culture Movement and her husband’s work. She took notes on philosophical essays for her husband’s use; wrote articles for The Standard, the organ of the Ethical Culture Society; and took a prominent part in the Women’s Conference of the society. Helen Adler helped her husband establish the first model tenements at Cherry Street as well as the first free kindergarten in America, called the Working Man’s School, and later the Ethical Culture School at Fieldston. She took an active part in the visiting nurses’ service for the poor at the DeMilt Dispensary, the oldest clinic in the city, which Felix had initiated in 1877. With the assistance of a Dr. Koplik, she helped cut the infant death rate by having milk bottled safely at the Laboratory Department for Modified Milk for Tenement Babies, which Koplik and Adler founded in 1891. She accompanied her husband on numerous trips abroad, notably to Berlin in 1903 and to Oxford, where he was Hibbert lecturer in 1923, where she did independent research on the history of Hibbert and the lectureship. When her husband traveled without her, they exchanged loving and engaging letters, revealing a lifelong intimate partnership.
In favor of woman suffrage, but opposed to unlimited public roles for women, Helen Adler lent limited support to her feminist contemporaries. She bore five children—Waldo, Eleanor, Lawrence, Margaret, and Ruth—and believed a woman’s most important task was child rearing. Yet she worried that women were not rigorous or exacting enough to attend to this task adequately and set out to make child rearing a science. Perhaps at her husband’s suggestion, in 1888, Helen Adler and five other mothers founded the Society for the Study of Child Nature (later the Child Study Association), to educate parents. In 1891, the Teacher Company published her pamphlet “Hints for the Scientific Observation and Study of Children,” designed to teach mothers to monitor their children’s development.
Felix Adler died in 1933 at age eighty-two. In later years, Helen Adler’s interest in art led her to greater involvement with the Arts High School at Fieldston, and also to produce floral sketches, pottery, and textile designs, described by one admirer as “beautifully living” and the fruits of a “genuine artistic impulse.” Helen Adler died in March 1948, survived by her children and siblings.
“Dr. Adler’s Meeting with the Vienna Ethical Society.” The Standard 14 (1927-1928): 24–25.
“Felix Adler.” Manuscript Collection, Columbia University.
Hints for the Scientific Observation and Study of Children (1891).
“The Life and Writings of Dr. Arthur Pfungst.” The Standard 13 (1926–1927): 15–16.
American Reformers. Edited by Alden Whitman (1985).
Andress, Bart. “Fifty Years of Child Study.” The Standard 25, no. 2 (1938–1939): 29–30.
“Dr. Felix Adler Dies in 82nd Year.” NYTimes, April 26, 1933, 15:1.
Friess, Horace L. Felix Adler and Ethical Culture: Memories and Studies. Edited by Fannia Weingartner (1981).
Goldmark, Josephine. Pilgrims of ‘48 (1930); “Mrs. Felix Adler Dies at Age of 89.” NYTimes, March 21, 1948, 60:2.
NAW; Woman’s Who’s Who of America. Edited by John William Leonard (1914).
WWIAJ (1926, 1928).