Lillian D Wald

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WALD, Lillian D.

Born 10 March 1867, Cincinnati, Ohio; died 1 September 1940, Westport, Connecticut

Daughter of Max D. and Minnie Schwarz Wald

The third of four children of a successful German-born dealer in optical goods, Lillian D. Wald grew up in an affectionate and cultured household within the Americanized German-Jewish community in Rochester, New York. Unsatisfied with the life of a well-to-do young woman, in 1889 Wald applied for admission to the New York Hospital training school for nurses, because she felt "the need of serious, definite work" and found nursing "womanly [and] congenial."

After graduating and working at the Juvenile Asylum in New York, Wald entered the Woman's Medical College of the New York Infirmary. While teaching home nursing on Manhattan's East Side, she was called to the bedside of a suffering woman in a filthy tenement. This "baptism of fire" inspired her to abandon medical school, move to the East Side with a friend from training school, and begin nursing her neighbors in their tenement homes. Aided from the first by wealthy Jews who felt a duty to their coreligionists crowding the slums, and later by other philanthropists, Wald founded the Henry Street Settlement and a visiting nurse service, which by 1915 served all of Manhattan and the Bronx and cared for more patients than three of New York's largest hospitals combined.

Wald did more than any other individual to invent and popularize the American version of public health nursing. She became a national figure in social reform and nursing circles, reaching her peak of influence in the decade before WWI when she spearheaded the successful drive for a federal children's bureau. Adept at conciliating people of differing views, Wald was a suffragist but not a militant.

Wald wrote for practical purposes and frequently had others, particularly Henry Street—resident Lavinia L. Dock, prepare her speeches and articles. Wald's briefer writings often described the methods of the Settlement and visiting-nurse service in businesslike detail, leaving motives and goals vague. Her two books, The House on Henry Street (1915) and Windows on Henry Street (1933), show a similar disjunction between concrete fact and impalpable ideal. They juxtapose anecdotes of her experiences as a nurse, East Side resident, and participant in reform crusades with inspirational but fuzzy generalizations.

Wald did not formulate a consistent philosophy. But her writings show three fundamental loyalties which shaped her career: to the settlement movement; to women, children, and the family; and to the promotion of women's social mission. Her interest in settlements was based on her sense of kinship with all human beings and comradeship in social service and on her pragmatism. The powerful first chapter of The House on Henry Street recounts Wald's "awakening" to her ties to tenement dwellers and her immediate decision to live among them.

Wald's writings reveal her dedication to women and children, combined with a tendency to subsume their interests under those of the home and family. A skillful propagandist sharing many of the values of her readers, Wald plays on middle-class Americans' reverence for motherhood by presenting the immigrant and working-class women of her neighborhood as conscientious, perplexed mothers. She endorses statements of individual working women and the Women's Trade Union League that, as actual or potential mothers, women workers need unions, shorter hours, and legal protection from poor working conditions.

Wald's discussions of nursing best express her conception of women's social role. Nurses act on a traditional, womanly impulse to care for the young and sick. She sees public health nurses as part of a reform movement based on the new conviction that much disease could be prevented by teaching ordinary people what scientists had learned about hygienic living and by improving social conditions. In Windows on Henry Street, Wald claims that "intelligent medical men" recognize the "essential independence" of nursing. Despite similar origins, medicine and nursing have separate histories, because scientific advance sets the pace of medical development, while religious and humanitarian interests determine the growth of nursing.

The practicality, conciliatory charm, and unanalytical sincerity that made Wald a star fund raiser and effective witness before committees appear in her writings as a fondness for anecdotes and comforting generalities and an unwillingness to probe struggles in her own soul or in society. Other women in the settlement movement, including Jane Addams and Vida Scudder, used their autobiographies to explore how they came to pioneer new roles for women and launch a social movement. Wald wrote less personally and less critically. Although her books do not reveal her innermost life and do not explain the dynamics of American society, they have value as documents of women's leadership in the settlement and public health movements. Their concreteness, disjointedness, and optimism convey the élan of women confident of their special ability to make the world a kinder, more humane place, while finding freedom for themselves at the same time.

Other Works:

The papers of Lillian D. Wald are at the New York Public Library and in the Butler Library, Columbia University, New York City.


Daniels, D., Lillian D. Wald: The Progressive Woman and Feminism (dissertation, 1976). Duffus, R., Lillian Wald: Neighbor and Crusader (1938). Reznick, A., Lillian D. Wald: The Years at Henry Street (dissertation, 1973).

Reference works:

DAB, NAW (1971).

Other references:

NR (8 Jan. 1916, 27 June 1934). NYT (2 Sept. 1940, 2 Dec. 1940). Survey Graphic (Oct. 1940).


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Lillian Wald

Lillian Wald (1867-1940), American social worker, nurse, pacifist, and reformer, founded one of the first great American settlement houses.

Lillian Wald was born on March 10, 1867, in Cincinnati. Her father, a dealer in optical goods, moved often, but she thought of Rochester, N.Y., where she was privately educated, as her hometown. In 1891 she graduated from the School of Nursing at Bellevue Hospital in New York City. After a year's work in a juvenile asylum, she entered the Women's Medical College. While a medical student she was asked to teach home nursing in New York City's East Side, then the most congested residential area in the world. The need of the immigrants living there was so great and the medical care available to them so slight that Wald abandoned her career and with another student took up residence on the East Side in 1893. Their tenement flat was the place from which both the Henry Street Settlement and the New York public health nursing service grew.

There were no city public health nurses in New York when Wald began her work. A score of agencies—most of them private, sectarian, charitable bodies—provided visiting nurses. Wald early resolved that the Henry Street nurses would be nonsectarian and would charge fees only to those who could pay. The service rapidly expanded, and 100 nurses were working out of what was then called the Nurses' Settlement by 1914. They treated more patients than the three largest city hospitals combined. The Henry Street Settlement also grew into a great neighborhood center. By 1913 it owned nine houses, seven vacation homes in the country, and three stores used as stock rooms, milk stations, clinics, and the like. The settlement enrolled 3,000 people in its clubs and classes and offered many cultural activities.

Wald also helped organize the first public school nursing services in New York City, as well as Lincoln House, one of the first settlements with an African American clientele. She was a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She helped create the New York State Bureau of Industries and Immigration and the Federal Children's Bureau.

Like other settlement leaders, Wald was a pacifist, and, also like them, she found World War I to be the gravest challenge of her career. She was chairman of the American Union against Militarism (AUAM), which had helped prevent a war with Mexico in 1916. Regarding American entry into the Great War, some members wished to concentrate chiefly on combating militarism, others to defend civil liberties. A third group, to which she belonged, hoped to devise alternatives to war without pitting themselves directly against the government. The struggle led to her resignation as chairman in 1917, after which the AUAM took a more radical line. Though it later dissolved, it helped father the American Civil Liberties Union and the Foreign Policy Association, a study group interested in promoting a just and durable peace. This was the approach she found most congenial.

In later years Wald became more involved in partisan politics. She supported Governor Al Smith, a good friend of social welfare, and later Franklin Roosevelt, an even better one. She died on Sept. 1, 1940, in Westport, Conn.

Further Reading

Wald wrote two books about her work: The House on Henry Street (1915) and Windows on Henry Street (1934). Her biographers are Robert L. Duffus, Lillian Wald: Neighbor and Crusader (1938), and Beryl Epstein, Lillian Wald: Angel of Henry Street (1948). □

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Lillian D. Wald: (wôld), 1867–1940, American social worker and pioneer in public health nursing. In 1893 she organized a visiting nurse service, which became the nucleus of the noted Henry Street Settlement in New York City. The U.S. Children's Bureau (founded 1912) was suggested by her, as were other public health services and social reforms.

See her autobiographical books The House on Henry Street (1915) and Windows on Henry Street (1934, 4th ed. 1937); biographies by R. L. Duffus (1938) and B. W. Epstein (1960).