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In 1893 on the Lower East Side of New York City, Lillian Wald, a New York Hospital nursing graduate, was teaching a course to immigrant women on home care and hygiene.
One morning, the daughter of one of Wald’s students came into the classroom in tears, saying that her mother was sick.
Lillian Wald followed the child to her family’s apartment, where she found a woman lying in a dirty bed soaked with blood. The child’s mother had been hemorrhaging since giving birth two days earlier.
Wald ministered to the woman, cleaned the bed and room, and comforted the family. The family was so grateful to Lillian Wald that as she turned to go, they kissed her hands.
This event was the impetus behind what has become the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. Within months, Wald and a colleague had established a presence on the Lower East Side, obtaining financial and government support for their mission. By 1895, the settlement had moved to a larger facility on Henry Street.
By providing care for their neighbors’ illnesses, and assisting with births and with deaths, Wald and her colleagues became the first public health nurses in the country.
Throughout her career, Wald never lost sight of the fact that the health of the community affected the health of the individual. In particular, she sought to improve the lives of women, children, and recent immigrants.
Lillian Wald sought to improve working conditions for women. She was active in founding the Women’s Trade Union League and served on the commission that led to the formation of New York State’s Bureau of Industries. She also worked to abolish child labor and helped to found the Federal Children’s Bureau.
Wald’s commitment to improving children’s lives extended to expanding their educational and recreational opportunities as well. The Henry Street Settlement was home to the largest playground on the Lower East Side. Wald also pressured the New York City board of education to offer educational opportunities for children with physical and learning disabilities, to hire nurses for the schools, and to establish school lunch programs for all children.
Although the Henry Street Settlement was the first and best known, branches were opened throughout Manhattan and the Bronx to provide health care, community programs, and employment to New Yorkers regardless of race or ethnicity. Wald made the Henry Street Settlement available as the meeting place for the National Negro Conference, which became the NAACP.
Upon her death at age 73 in 1940, thousands filled Carnegie Hall to celebrate Wald’s remarkable legacy and to hear messages from leaders including President Roosevelt commending Lillian Wald’s vision, compassion, and leadership.