Lillian D. Wald was the founder of the Henry Street Visiting Nurse Service and of the Henry Street Settlement. She was also responsible for the instruction of nurses in the public schools and for insurance companies providing free visiting nurses for their policy holders.
She was born on March 10, 1867, of German-Jewish parents, Minnie and Max Wald, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Wald's family sent her to private schools. Her father was a successful merchant in optical goods in Rochester, New York. She became interested in nursing when her sister was sick and had a private nurse.
Her interest in nursing persisted, and when she was 22 years old she enrolled as a student in the New York Hospital Training School for Nurses. Two years later, in March, 1891, she graduated as a nurse. Wald took postgraduate courses where her assignment was to organize a plan for home nursing to meet the needs of the poor immigrant families on the Lower East Side of New York.
After seeing firsthand the miserable conditions that existed. she decided to move to that neighborhood so that she could be a visiting nurse there. Her friend, Mary Brewster, joined her and in the fall of 1893 they set up their office on the top floor of a tenement on Jefferson Street. Wald managed to get financial support from sponsors who recognized the importance of her work. It didn't take long for her to win the confidence of the people in the neighborhood. As the patients increased, so did her staff. She soon had four nurses, and in 1895 she moved to 265 Henry Street, which was her base for 40 years.
Wald's staff dispensed help to all who needed it regardless of race or religion. By 1913, her staff had grown to 92. When she thought about children's absences from school because of illness, she arranged for a member of her staff to provide nursing service in a public school. It was enthusiastically received and the success that it enjoyed soon led to the New York Board of Health organizing and staffing the first public nursing system in the world.
Wald went to the insurance companies to sell them on the idea of providing free visiting public health nurses to their policy holders. Metropolitan Life Insurance Company was the first one to do so in 1903, and it did not take long for other insurance companies to follow.
She recognized that the area mothers and their daughters had to be educated on home nursing, cooking and sewing. She founded the Henry Street Settlement for their education and also to provide recreation and activities for the family and the children. In 1915, Wald founded the Neighborhood Playhouse on Grand Street to help meet the cultural needs of the Lower East Side. Throughout her life she worked very hard for social reform.
Today, the Henry Street Settlement and the Visiting Nurse Service are institutions in New York City. They are testimonials to Lillian D. Wald, who only wanted people to have healthy lives. She died in 1940.
Sources: This is one of the 150 illustrated true stories of American heroism included in Jewish Heroes & Heroines of America : 150 True Stories of American Jewish Heroism, © 1996, written by Seymour "Sy" Brody of Delray Beach, Florida, illustrated by Art Seiden of Woodmere, New York, and published by Lifetime Books, Inc., Hollywood, FL.