Nurse Who Changed the World: Lillian Wald

Hero of Public Health

Lillian Wald was an American nurse who brought medical care to poor communities and pioneered the field of public health nursing.

Born to a Jewish family in Cincinnati in 1867, Lillian attended nursing school at New York Hospital. After graduating, she worked at an orphanage on the Lower East Side. One day, as she was walking to work in her white nurse’s uniform, a little girl approached her repeating the words, “Mommy…baby…blood.” Lillian went to the child’s home, a squalid two-room tenement apartment, to find a woman who had just given birth and desperately needed medical attention. A doctor had been there but left because there was no money to pay him.

Lillian treated the suffering mother, and at that moment she pledged her life to bringing health care to poor immigrant families.

The next year, 1893, Lillian founded the Nurses’ Settlement to serve the poorest New Yorkers, primarily Russian Jewish immigrants, and educate them about health care. In 1895, banker and philanthropist Jacob Schiff secretly donated a townhouse on Henry Street, and the facility became known as the Henry Street Settlement. By 1906, Lillian supervised 27 visiting nurses, and by 1913 there were 92 nurses on staff.

The Henry Street Settlement is still at its original location, and now serves 50,000 New Yorkers each year, including children, the disabled, senior citizens, and victims of domestic violence.

Lillian’s visiting nurse program became the Visiting Nurse Service of New York, now treating 65,000 patients. It is the largest non-profit, home-based healthcare organization in the United States.

In addition to her nursing work, Lillian was an outspoken advocate for racial integration, and in 1909 she became a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). She also led the Child Labor Committee, which successfully lobbied Congress for stricter federal laws against child labor.

Lillian died in 1940. A few months after her death, a memorial service was held at Carnegie Hall and drew over 2000 people. Messages were delivered from President Roosevelt, the governor of New York State, and the mayor of New York City.

For making a tremendous difference in the lives of indigent, sick, and marginalized Americans, we honor Lillian Wald as this week’s Thursday Hero.

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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