New York City’s First Public Nurse: Lillian Wald
On September 1, 1940, Lillian Wald passed away. While not a household name, Wald’s influence on public social services in New York City is exemplary, as she is the founder of the Henry Street Settlement, The Visiting Nurse Services of New York, and is the namesake for the Lillian Wald Houses on Avenue D in the East Village. Born in 1867 in Ohio, Wald and her family moved to Rochester, New York in 1878. In 1889 she attended the New York Hospital’s School of Nursing, graduating from the New York Hospital Training School for Nurses in 1891, and then took courses at the Woman’s Medical College.
By the time Wald left medical school in 1893 she began focusing on caring for sick Lower East Side residents as a visiting nurse, eventually moving to that area to be closer to her patients. Around that time Wald coined the term “Public Health Nurse,” to denote her work and its integration within the public community. It was also during that time that Wald founded the Henry Street Settlement, which was funded by philanthropist Jacob Schiff. By 1906, Wald’s Settlement had 27 nurses and by 1913 it was operating with 92 people. Wald advocated for nursing in public schools and she was the first president of the National Organization for Public Health Nursing. She also helped found the Columbia University School of Nursing and her ideas led the New York Board of Health to organize the first public nursing system in the world.
In addition to her work in public health, Wald was also an advocate for ending child labor, women’s suffrage, and civil rights. She helped found the Women’s Trade Union League in 1903, was an early leader of the Child Labor Committee, which became the National Child Labor Committee (NCLC), helped to establish the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and is even one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Her tireless work and far reach has had a powerful impact on not only nursing for the public but initiatives that benefit the entire country, and we here at GVSHP are proud that her work and namesake are so closely associated with the Lower East Side and parts of the East Village.