Celebrating Amazing Women: Lillian D. Wald, Social Service Pioneer


by Karen Perry-Weinstat

What do the NAACP, the Visiting Nurse Association and the Henry Street Settlement all have in common? They were all founded by nurse, author and humanitarian Lillian D. Wald. In 1922, The New York Times named Wald as one of the 12 greatest living Americans. Who was this woman who accomplished so much in her 73 years, and practically invented the blueprint for the modern-day social service agency?

Wald was born in 1867 into a German-Jewish middle-class family in Cincinnati, Ohio and came to New York in 1889 to attend nursing school. In 1893, after witnessing the poverty of Lower East Side immigrants, she founded the Henry Street Settlement. In an era when poor patients were routinely turned away from hospitals, Wald and her team provided free healthcare, often risking their own lives to enter squalid tenements and exposing themselves to illness. The  Visiting Nurse Service of New York broke off as a separate entity in 1944.

Henry Street also provided social services and instruction in everything from the English language to art to music. By 1913, the Settlement had expanded to seven buildings, with 92 nurses making 200,000 visits per year. Today, the Henry Street Settlement remains firmly rooted on Lower East Side of Manhattan, where it continues to service an ethnically-diverse community.

Wald was also an advocate for children, labor, immigrant, civil and women’s rights. She helped institute the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the United States Children’s Bureau, the National Child Labor Committee and the National Women’s Trade Union League.

While we could go on for pages about this leader of extraordinary compassion, there are a variety of books available on Wald and her legacy. You can learn more about the impact of settlement houses, in anecdotal format, in Anita Diamant’s best-selling novel Boston Girl.

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