There are several claimants to the title of New York’s most famous nurse. That distinction probably can be laid at the feet of Long Island native Walt Whitman, though it was not his nursing skills during the Civil War that garnered him his fame. Some might argue it is the still not positively identified nurse who was photographed in Times Square celebrating the surrender of Japan in 1945 through a passionate kiss from a sailor. Again, though, it was not her skills as a nurse that earned her recognition. Another contender was Mary Breckinridge, whose Frontier Nursing Service brought healthcare to poor rural America. While her fame came about as a result of her nursing, she was born in Tennessee and gained her fame in Kentucky, only acquiring her nursing education in New York.
I happen to believe the title of New York’s most famous nurse belongs to Lillian Wald. Though born in Cincinnati, her family brought her to New York as a girl. She would spend the rest of her life there, gaining fame for her work in bringing healthcare to the poorest of New York’s immigrant population. Even after her death in 1940 her impact on New York continued to be felt, and her legacy lives on to this day.
Born to a middle-class Ashkinazi family, Wald came to live in Rochester, New York at the age of eleven. She expressed an early interest in education, attempting to enter Vassar College at sixteen. Owing to her youth she was turned down. She wouldn’t start college until 22, when she began attending New York Hospital’s School of Nursing. After graduating from that program she went on to further her education at the Woman’s Medical College.
During her training at the Woman’s Medical College she volunteered to teach classes in nursing for poor immigrant women at the Hebrew Technical School for Girls in the Lower East Side. Her encounters with the poor immigrant families living here would provide her with the purpose that drove her for the rest of her life. Concerned by the lack of even basic healthcare for the neighborhood’s urban poor, Wald set to work.
Along with Mary Brewster, Wald moved to the Lower East Side. She quit the Woman’s Medical College and began working as a visiting nurse. She began describing herself as a “public health nurse”, giving herself the freedom to focus on health care as a community centric activity rather than a private relationship between a health care professional and an individual patient.
To further facilitate her ability to provide public health care in the Lower East Side Wald founded the Henry Street Settlement. Though its services were primarily focused and health care and health education it also provided a number of social services for the immigrant population such as English lessons and vocational training for women. The organization quickly caught the attention of numerous benefactors. Donations from philanthropists such as Jacob Schiff and Elizabeth Milbank Anderson allowed her to charge patients on a sliding scale. This allowed even the poorest of patients to have access to decent healthcare.
Wald’s work with the immigrants of the Lower East Side soon expanded beyond both healthcare and the limits of the neighborhood. She became an outspoken reformer, on both the local and the national stage. As part of her public health nurse approach to community based healthcare her ideas led to the adoption of placing nurses in the public school system, something that would eventually be adopted throughout the U.S. She was also an outspoken advocate of labor law reform, leading her to leadership positions in both the Women’s Trade Union League and the National Child Labor Committee. When the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was formed in 1909 its major first public conference was held at the fully integrated Henry Street Settlement complex. She would also take an active role in such organizations as the Woman’s Peace Party and the American Civil Liberties Union.
Wald died of a stroke in 1940. At this point she had been retired for seven years, having experienced a previous stroke in 1933. At her public memorial she was recognized by the likes of Governor Herbert Lehman and President Franklin D. Roosevelt for her “unselfish labor to promote the happiness and well being of others.”
Lilian Wald’s legacy lived on well past her death. Her pioneering work in both Public Health Nursing and social justice advocacy work led the path for generations who have followed in her footsteps. The Henry Street Settlement continues to provide services for New Yorkers, as does its offshoot organization, the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. Between these two more than 110,000 New Yorkers a year receive healthcare and community services vital to promoting their welfare, and with it the welfare of the entire city.
Regardless of who the public at large might consider to be New York’s most famous nurse, be it Walt Whitman, Mary Breckenridge, or an anonymous nurse in Times Square, in terms of impact the claim for who should be the most famous becomes a no competition blowout. Lilian Wald created an entirely new approach to nursing and healthcare in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, changed the world with her social advocacy, and founded some of the largest healthcare and social services organizations in the history of New York. She deserves the title, and in my heart, she will always have it.
Photos, from above: a portrait of Lillian Wald (circa 1913); Wald as a young nurse; Portrait of Lillian Wald by William Valentine Schevill, National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.; and Lillian Wald’s bust on display at the Hall of Fame for Great Americans. All photos courtesy Wikimedia.