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.

Henry St. Settlement

In 1893, Wald agreed to teach a class in home nursing and hygiene to immigrant women on the Lower East Side. One day, while teaching, a little girl approached Wald and asked her to attend to her sick mother. The child led her through the decrepit tenementsinto the sickroom where Wald attended to the child’s mother. Her encounter with the young girl’s family prompted Wald to dedicate her life’s work to the tenement community. With funding from philanthropists and friends, Wald and Mary Brewster, her friend and colleague, established the Visiting Nurses Service in 1893. By January 1894, the two had visited over 125 families and offered advice to many more. One year later, Wald moved to 265 Henry Street and founded the renowned Henry Street Settlement House.

Public School Programs

Wald’s advocacy for children soon took her beyond the Henry Street neighborhood and into municipal institutions like New York City’s public schools. Wald sought to institute supportive systems within the public school framework. In 1900, she convinced the New York City Board of Education to hire Elizabeth Farrell, a Henry Street resident, to teach special education classes for children with learning disabilities and physical handicaps. In 1902, Wald pressured the school system to provide school nurses and succeeded in having a Henry Street nurse hired as New York City’s first public school nurse. Shortly thereafter, the Board of Health hired its first fleet of twelve school nurses. Finally, in 1908, Wald lobbied for “a regular system of school lunch” for all children in the public school system. The same year, due in part to Wald’s earlier efforts, the New York City Board of Education established the first Department of Special Education.

New York Immigration Commission

Wald was an advocate for immigrants and their rights. When New York’s Governor Charles Evans Hughes visited the Settlement in 1908, Wald told him about the exploitation experienced by her immigrant neighbors. In response, Hughes appointed her to a commission to investigate the “condition, welfare, and industrial opportunities in the State of New York.”  The commission’s report, which called for the creation of improved living and working standards for the workers and their families, led to the formation of a State Bureau of Industries in New York.

Wald also actively supported efforts to improve race relations and made sure that her settlement houses not only provided services, but also employment, for members of all racial and ethnic groups. She insisted that Henry Street’s classes be racially integrated, and Stillman House, the branch of Henry Street which served the African-American community, was known for its extensive research on the lives of blacks. Her most notable work for civil rights, however, was her institutional involvement with the National Negro Conference, a gathering held at Henry Street. The conference became the founding meeting of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Factory Reform

Wald’s efforts to improve workplace conditions included gaining the support of striking workers through fundraising, picketing, and raising public awareness. Under the terms of the cloak maker’s strike settlement in 1910, an agency called the Joint Board of Sanitary Control was established to monitor standards of ventilation, fire protection, pollution, lighting, and sanitation in manufactories. Wald served on the board and continued to speak out against unsafe working conditions. She supported the elimination of exploitative home work programs and the establishment of a minimum wage for women workers.

Federal Children’s Bureau

In 1904, Wald had joined a group of Progressive reformers working to abolish child labor, promote children’s health, and reclaim children who dropped out of school. Calling themselves the National Child Labor Committee, they used $100,000 in private funds for investigations, but then concluded that any proposed changes would work only if legislated and enforced by the federal government. Wald conceived of the Federal Children’s Bureau in 1905 and campaigned for it tirelessly until its establishment in 1912.  

Peace Work

Wald was deeply committed to the peaceful resolution of disputes. When World War I broke out in Europe in 1914, she marched with 1500 other women in a “women’s peace parade” and joined the Women’s Peace Party. In 1915, she was elected president of the newly formed American Union Against Militarism. Wald worried that as President Woodrow Wilson was increasingly pressured to involve the U.S. in the war, militarism would “march into the schools” and lead to the infringement of individual rights. Wald and other AUAM members unsuccessfully lobbied President Wilson and as war fervor intensified, Wald’s anti-militarist position cost Henry Street some of its funding. After the U.S. joined the war, Wald abandoned her anti-militarist stance but remained affiliated with the Foreign Policy Organization and the American Civil Liberties Union.

NY State Women’s Suffrage Campaign

Wald was a firm believer in woman’s suffrage and was even asked by the leaders of the movement to run for political office. Although she declined, Wald supported the New York State suffrage campaigns. When the 1915 amendment failed to pass, one suffrage leader blamed immigrant voters. Wald pointed out that many immigrants, and especially Jews–female and male–were anxious to exercise the political rights that they had been denied elsewhere. Wald, as always, saw the women of the Henry Street neighborhood as her primary constituents, and continued to champion both the cause of suffrage and immigrant rights with equal zeal.

WWI Work

During the war, Wald spent her time shuttling back and forth between New York and Washington. In New York, Wald volunteered Henry Street as the headquarters for wartime Red Cross and Food Council drives and spearheaded the NYC arm of the Children’s Bureau Baby Saving Campaign. In Washington, Wald served as chair of the Committee on Home Nursing for the Council of National Defense. The Spanish influenza epidemic outbreak of 1918, however, captured Wald’s undivided attention. Flying home to NYC, Wald recruited and rallied support for treatment centers that she established throughout the city.

Post WWI

After the war, Wald took her health, child welfare, peace and gender equality crusades to national and international audiences. In 1919, she represented the Federal Children’s Bureau at a Red Cross conference in France. She also attended the second International Conference on Women for Peace in Zurich, where members of the Women’s Peace Party voted for the League of Nations and endorsed gender equality and woman suffrage. The Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, in which Wald played a leadership role for many years, was founded at that conference. While Henry Street’s success remained Wald’s top priority, throughout the 1920’s, she continued to travel and speak at political events on issues such as Prohibition, disarmament, and pacifism.


Between 1920 and 1923, Wald suffered several personal losses, including the deaths of her mother and her longtime friend and early Henry Street benefactor, Jacob Schiff. In April 1925, her own health began to fail. Wald retired to her “house on the pond” in Westport, Connecticut. Many national and international figures, including Jane Adams, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein, continued to visit her there. During her retirement, Wald wrote Windows on Henry Street, the second volume in her history of Henry Street and the Henry Street Settlement House (the first, The House on Henry Street, was published in 1915). In 1937, Henry Street celebrated Wald’s seventieth birthday by broadcasting a radio program during which Mrs. Sara Delano Roosevelt read a letter from her son, President Franklin Roosevelt, praising Wald for her “unselfish labor to promote the happiness and well being of others.”


Wald died on September 1, 1940. A few months later, 2,500 people filled Carnegie Hall to hear messages from the president, governor, mayor, and others testifying to Wald’s ability to bring people together and effect change. Henry Street and the Visiting Nurse Service of New York still continue the work initiated by Wald more than one hundred years ago.

Discover More

Balaam the Prophet

The infamous story of the prophet with the talking donkey demonstrates the Bible's awareness that powers of divination were not limited to Israelite seers.