Lillian Wald

Public health activist and champion of minority rights.


Lillian Wald is celebrated for her tireless efforts in improving the Lower-East Side immigrant communities. At the turn of the 20th century, thousands of Eastern-European Jews populated crowded, run-down, and disease-infested tenement houses. Wald became an influential leader and brought about significant changes in the lives of thousands of impoverished Jews through her health-care initiatives and social welfare programs. Excerpted with permission from the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA). For more information on Lillian Wald, go to JWA’s Women of Valor online exhibit.Lillian Wald

Lillian D. Wald was born in Cincinnati, Ohio on March 10, 1867 and she led a privileged and happy childhood in a home that was always filled with books and music.  In 1878, the Wald family moved from Cincinnati to Rochester, New York. Lillian was educated at an English-French boarding school, excelling in science, math, and the arts. Though Wald’s family was a member of a Reform Temple, she received no formal Jewish training.

Becoming a Nurse

At the age of sixteen, Lillian attended the birth of her sister Julia’s child. She was so inspired by the work of the attending nurse that she decided to embark on a career in nursing. In 1889, Wald enrolled in the nursing program at the New York Hospital Training School. After her graduation in 1891, she went to work as a professional nurse at an orphanage for children ages five to fourteen, but she quickly became disillusioned with institutional methods of caring for children. In 1892, she enrolled at the Women’s Medical College in NYC.

Public Health Nursing

Wald coined the term “public health nurse” in 1893 for nurses who worked outside hospitals in poor and middle-class communities. Wald helped to initiate a series of lectures to educate prospective nurses at Columbia University’s Teachers College in 1899. Students attended classes at Columbia and received their field training at Henry Street. This series led to the formation of the University’s Department of Nursing and Health in 1910. Wald and her colleagues in the public health movement recognized the need for the establishment of professional standards for public health nurses. Like other professional organizations, the National Organization of Public Health Nurses (NOPHN) was designed to set professional standards, share techniques and protect the reputations of its members. Wald was elected as the organization’s first president.

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