Lillian D. Wald, a public health nurse and social reformer, was born in Cincinnati on March 10, 1867, to German-Jewish immigrants Max D. and Minnie Schwarz Wald. The family moved to Rochester, New York, and Wald attended private schools. She gradually became bored with a lifestyle that promised nothing more than social events. Like many young women of her era, she wanted to use her skills and talents for something socially useful. Nursing offered everything that she sought. In 1891, Wald graduated from the New York Hospital Training School for Nurses. She then spent a year working in an orphan asylum.
After briefly studying at the Woman’s Medical College in New York, Wald abandoned her interest in becoming a physician and moved to the College Settlement on the Lower East Side. She taught home nursing to immigrants. When one of the students became ill, she went to her home to offer aid and discovered that tenement living involved suffering, poverty, and filth. Shocked and ashamed that such conditions existed, Wald joined her friend Mary Brewster in forming a settlement house in 1893. With financial support from a wealthy banker, Wald and Brewster founded the Henry Street settlement in 1895.
Henry Street provided the educational and recreational activities and services typical of settlement houses. Wald provided a playground, helped reclaim land for parks, and offered English language lessons. Wald made a unique contribution by using Henry Street to introduce the concept of public health nursing. She created the Visiting Nurses Service (VNS) to treat people at home, thereby saving patients money and leaving hospital beds available for the critically ill. In addition, as Wald realized, patients preferred to recover in familiar surroundings in the presence of family members. Her innovations included providing nonsectarian care and charging a token fee to protect the dignity of the patient. At her suggestion, the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company started a nursing service for policyholders. Wald demanded independence for the nurses in the field, resulting in campaigns for improved education and training for nurses. Wald continued to blaze trails by introducing public school nurses (1902) and pushing the Red Cross to form its Town and Country Nursing Service (1912), which extended the system of home visits into rural communities.
Wald recognized that many factors shaped the lives of the people served by Henry Street, and so she tried to influence these factors for the better. She also served as member of the Mayor’s Pushcart Commission and the New York State Committee on Immigration. She helped found the Women’s Trade Union League (WTUL) in 1903. The WTUL was unique among women’s labor organizations in that it brought together women of all classes to work on behalf of unionization and labor legislation. During World War I, the pacifist Wald helped form the American Union Against Militarism to prevent American entrance into the war. After retiring in 1933 because of ill health, Wald moved to Westport, Connecticut, where she died on September 1, 1940.
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