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Lillian D. Wald was a natural-born leader and humanitarian that changed the face of New York. As a nurse, she dreamed of making decent healthcare available for everyone in need – women, children, the poor, and members of minority ethnic and racial groups. Back in 19th century America, that was not the most common stance on the subject matter as those vulnerable demographics often suffered at the hands of more privileged ones. Over the course of her life, Wald contributed to many great causes such as public health nursing, housing reform, suffrage, and world peace. In New York, she showed her leadership skills and deep compassion for humanity through founding humanitarian organizations, fundraising, and publicizing. This essay provides a brief biographical overview of Lillian D. Wald’s life as well as explains how her humanitarian endeavors changed New York.
Lillian D. Wald was born in Cincinnati. Ohio on March 10, 1867, to a family of European immigrants (Feld 23). Wald led a fairly peaceful and privileged life as her father ran a successful optical goods business. Both her parents were very kind with all of the kids and made sure that they always had books to read and music to listen to. When Wald was 11, her family moved to Rochester, New York – the town that the activist would later call her own. At school, the girl demonstrated strong leanings toward life sciences, maths, and the arts. Soon enough Wald understood that she needed to do more serious work than most young women of her class. Becoming a nurse seemed like a natural thing to do.
At the age of 16, Wald applied to Vassar college but was rejected as she did not meet the age requirements. Soon after, she witnessed the birth of her niece, which solidified the idea of starting a career in nursing even more. At 22, Wald successfully enrolled in the nursing program offered by the New York Hospital Training School. Her first job placement after graduation was at the New York Juvenile Asylum, an orphanage for children. Wald did not quite fit in there: she felt an overwhelming inner resistance toward institutional methods of caring for children. As her biographers state, she was too individualistic to survive the system without losing herself. Wald wanted to make a change, and the next stepping stone was enrolling in the Women’s Medical College in NYC in 1892.
Public Health Nursing
In 1893, Wald coined the term “public health nurse” for those nurses who took their expertise from hospitals to disadvantaged communities. The activist explained that the term expressed the affinity that health workers had to the demographics. These nurses put emphasis on both preventive care and preservation of health. On the job, they responded to referrals from physicians and received payment based on the patient’s level of income. Soon, it turned out that the demand for public nurses was growing – both hospitals and communities acknowledged their role in promoting health. Wald started an education campaign to spread knowledge. The activist initiated a series of lectures at Columbia University’s Teachers College in 1899. The classes were held at Columbia while the field training was organized at Henry Street. This series was a great success and subsequently, led to the formation of the Department of Nursing Health at Columbia University in 1910.
By 1912, it had become clear that public health nurses (sometimes called visiting or district nurses) were vital to health promotion. Wald and her colleagues realized that it was time to establish professional standards to guide the public health movement. That realization led to the foundation of a professional organization, the National Organization of Public Health Nurses (NOPHN) (Buhler-Wilkerson). The institutional body is aimed at setting and enforcing professional standards, share techniques and protect its members. The first president of the National Organization was Lillian Wald herself.
In her attempts to save poor immigrant women and children in the Lower East Side, Wald also helped to preserve a rare and forgotten part of New York City history. Before the 1950s wave of mass migration, Henry Street was filled with elegant townhouses. However, as the number of poor residents grew, many buildings were torn down and replaced with tenements. The latter was later subject to another bout of renovation, turning them into blocks of apartment complexes in the early 20th century. The only three Henry Street buildings survived only because of Lillian Wald who sought to repurpose them to serve the needs of the community.
In 1893, Wald met a wealthy banker Jacob Schiff who also had an immigration background and shared the same sentiment as the nursing activist (Cross 124). He purchased the three remaining Henry Street buildings for Wald so that she could set up her nursing agency. The purchase started off the history of the Henry Street Settlement that housed public health nurses. They often had to work in harsh conditions: since most standard hospitals would reject poor patients, those social services health workers had to visit the sick in their own dwelling. By doing that, they would expose themselves to many dangers such as crimes and illnesses that were considered untreatable back then. With the support of Schiff, Wald had no trouble turning the Henry Street Buildings into working clinics so that both nurses and patients could feel more at ease.
Interestingly enough, better health promotion was not the only effect of starting the Henry Street Settlement. The buildings often welcomed the era’s great thinkers and progressivists (Daniels 251). At the same time, Lillian Wald improved the quality of life of the entire neighborhood. For example, she turned her own courtyard into New York’s first playground for those children that had no place to play. The activist also brought health care to schools: Henry Street’s Lina Rogers was trained to be the very first school nurse. Apart from health care, Lillian Wald brought improvement to the city’s cultural life. For instance, for some time, the Settlement had been an important art venue with the foundation of the Neighborhood Playhouse theater in 1915 (Siegel, 156).
A nursing leader and a social services activist, Lillian D. Wald was an idealist – but a practical one at that. She had a dream and she had a plan to help America realize the promise of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Coming from a privileged family, Wald still sympathized with the disadvantaged and succeeded in helping them during her lifetime. The activist coined the term “public health nurse” describing the type of health worker with strong morals and affinity to their community. In attempts to provide a proper clinical setting for poor patients, Wald collaborated with a wealthy banker, Schiff, to repurpose the Henry Street buildings and give them a second life. Her endeavors resulted in working hospitals as well as major improvements in the entire neighborhood.
Buhler-Wilkerson, Karen. “Bringing Care to the People: Lillian Wald’s Legacy to Public Health Nursing.” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 83, no. 12, 1993.
Cross, Clare, ed. Lillian D. Wald: Progressive Activist. Feminist Press at CUNY, 1993 [anthology of writings].
Daniels, Doris Groshen. Always a Sister: The Feminism of Lillian D. Wald. The Feminist Press at CUNY, 1995.
Feld, Marjorie N. Lillian Wald: A Biography. University of North Carolina Press, 2008.
Siegel, Beatrice. Lillian Wald of Henry Street. Macmillan, 1983.