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 on Lillian Wald

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).