On March 10, 1867, the pioneering nurse Lillian Wald was born in Cincinnati, Ohio. She is the subject of one our chapters in Footprints in New York. As we write, Wald
came to New York City in 1889 to study nursing; three years later, having worked for a time in the overcrowded conditions at New York’s Juvenile Asylum on Tenth Avenue, Wald decided to improve her training, enrolling in medical school.
While studying, Wald also volunteered at a school on Henry Street; it was there that an encounter with a young girl—in the midst of a lesson on how to make a bed—changed her life. As Wald recalled in her memoir:
The child led me over broken roadways—there was no asphalt, although its use was well established in other parts of the city—over dirty mattresses and heaps of refuse . . . through a tenement hallway, across a court where open and unscreened [water] closets were promiscuously used by men and women . . . and finally into the sickroom. . . . That morning’s experience was a baptism of fire. Deserted were the laboratory and the academic work of the college.
It wasn’t long before Wald hit upon the notion of a “settlement” house— unaware that other progressive health professionals were having the same idea. The idea was simple: Too often, charity work consisted of throwing money at the poor, or convening panels or government agencies to study a problem.... Wald wanted something different—a place where professionals would actually help the poor on an ongoing basis. In order to do that, they would need to live, or “settle” in the neighborhood. Wald and her friend, a fellow nurse named Mary Brewster, moved to a tenement on Jefferson Street, originally dubbed Nurses’ Settlement.
There were few doctors on the Lower East Side, and most tenement dwellers would not have been able to afford them anyway. Wald’s team of nurses made the rounds to the tenements (today’s Visiting Nurse Service of New York is the direct descendant of Wald’s settlement house), helping expectant mothers, acting as midwives, and focusing on preventative care. Wald coined the term “public health nurse” to describe her work, and over the course of her lifetime, thousands of families benefited from her care. In 1895, financier Jacob Schiff bought Wald an old townhouse at 265 Henry Street as the settlement’s new headquarters. Over a century later, the organization is still there.
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SAVE THE DATE
Thursday, April 21, at 6:30pm
we will be talking about Footprints in New York at
The Mid-Manhattan Branch of the New York Public Library
details to come
Read more about NYC history in