Lillian Wald Biography

Lillian D. Wald, an American nurse turned humanitarian and reformer, dedicated her life to serving the less fortunate and advocating for justice and equality. Through her efforts, she established the Visiting Nurse Service and the Henry Street Settlement in New York, providing healthcare and support to people from all walks of life. Lillian’s compassion extended to children and women, as she fought for reforms against child labor and women’s suffering. Additionally, she actively worked towards promoting world peace and played a significant role in the suffrage movement and racial integration. Lillian’s contributions were instrumental in the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Lillian D. Wald
  • Died At Age: 73
  • Died on: September 1, 1940
  • Place of Death: Westport, Connecticut, United States
  • U.S. State: Ohio
  • Notable Alumni: New York Hospital Training School For Nurses
  • City: Cincinnati, Ohio
  • Founder/Co-Founder: The Nurses’ Settlement, Women’s Trade Union League, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Visiting Nurse Service of New York
  • Education: New York Hospital Training School For Nurses
  • Humanitarian Work: Founding the Henry Street Settlement; nursing pioneer, advocacy for the poor

Childhood & Early Life

Lillian Wald was born on March 10, 1867, in Cincinnati, Ohio. Her father, Max D. Wald, came from a middle-class German-Jewish family, while her mother had Jewish Polish and Jewish German ancestry. The Wald family moved to Rochester, New York, when Lillian was a child, and Rochester became her hometown. Lillian received an expensive private education at Miss Cruttenden’s English-French Boarding and Day School for Young Ladies, where she was trained in French and German. At the age of sixteen, she tried to attend Vassar College but was not accepted due to her age. She spent the next few years traveling and working as a newspaper correspondent. At the age of twenty-two, she joined a nursing program at New York Hospital, inspired by a nurse she met at Bellevue Hospital in New York City.


After graduating in 1891, Lillian served at the juvenile asylum for a year before returning to the Woman’s Medical College to pursue her M.D. degree. During her time at the medical college, she also taught home nursing to people in the eastern region of New York. It was during this time that she witnessed the poor living conditions and lack of medical aid in the area, which led her to abandon her education and move to the downtrodden side of New York on Jefferson Street in 1893. Together with her friend Mary Brewster, she established the “Visiting Nurse Service” in 1893 and later moved to Henry Street in 1895. The team grew from 9 trained nurses in 1893 to 15 in 1900 and 27 in 1927. The Henry Street Settlement provided not only health aid but also housing, education, and employment opportunities. Lillian also set up recreational services, including the largest playground on the Eastern side of New York and the Henry Street Neighborhood Playhouse in 1915.

Philanthropy and Activism

Lillian Wald’s work extended beyond healthcare and social services. She was a pacifist and the chairman of the American Union against Militarism (AUAM), advocating for peaceful relations with Mexico instead of warfare. She also protested the United States’ involvement in World War I through organizations such as the Women’s Peace Party and the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom. Wald’s contributions to public health and social justice were recognized through various awards and achievements. She introduced the term “public health nurse” and played a key role in developing the first public nursing system in the world. She also proposed the national health insurance plan and worked for the rights of women and children, including the formation of the Women Trade Union League and the National Child Labor Committee. She founded the Columbia University School of Nursing, the Federal Children’s Bureau, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Personal Life & Legacy

Lillian Wald remained unmarried throughout her life, dedicating herself fully to her work at the Henry Street Settlement. She had a close relationship with two female friends, author Mabel Hyde Kittredge and lawyer Helen Arthur. In 1925, she began to struggle with heart ailments and eventually had to resign from the Henry Street Settlement in 1933 due to declining health. She moved to Westport, Connecticut, and officially stepped down as chairman of the Henry Street Settlement board in 1937. Lillian Wald passed away on September 1, 1940, from a cerebral hemorrhage at her Connecticut home. She was cremated at a family plot in Rochester, New York. Throughout her life, Lillian Wald was recognized for her selfless and humanitarian efforts, and her legacy continues to inspire others in the field of social well-being.

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