Recognizing Lillian Wald in honor of National Nurses Week 2008

Compiled by Susan Rita Ruel, PhD
Communications Manager/ER
Visiting Nurse Service of New York


LILLIAN WALD, “mother of public health nursing”

It is fitting to honor Lillian WALD on the National Women's History Project website during the month of May 2008-- when National Nurses Week is celebrated every year, from May 6 to May 12, the birthday of Florence Nightingale.

Wald was born in March 1867.  Interestingly, on MAY 8, 1916, when Wald's international reputation and influence were at their zenith, she paid a visit to the White House to express her pacifist views to President Woodrow Wilson. This meeting became the subject of a one-women play produced in New York, entitled: "Lillian Wald: At Home on Henry Street."

Lillian Wald was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1993 and won numerous national honors throughout her lifetime (1867-1940) and ever since. Wald is known as the "mother of public health nursing," a term she coined to describe the work of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York.  She founded our agency in 1893 on New York's Lower East Side, when it was the world's most densely populated slum.  Wald was also a pioneering U.S. social worker who went on to establish the Henry Street Settlement House. Her work had an artistic dimension as well, because she established a theatre and arts and music classes that are still going strong today.

For four decades, Wald led VNSNY in helping New Yorkers deal with challenges from the 1918 influenza outbreak to the Great Depression. Serving many ethnic communities and playing roles in the civil rights and women’s movements, Wald blazed a trail for our multicultural workforce. Today, VNSNY employees are fluent in 50 languages and care for a diverse patient population, 25% of which is non-English speaking. The centennial of the organization Wald founded was marked at Ellis Island Immigration Museum with the exhibition: “Healing at Home: Visiting Nurse Service of New York 1893-1993.” Today, VNSNY colleagues carry on our mission, coping with crises like the AIDS epidemic and the September 11th attack while providing ongoing home care to our patients.

When Wald passed away in 1940, she was commemorated at Carnegie Hall where 2,500 people filled the hall to hear messages from the president, governor, mayor, and others testifying to Wald's ability to bring people together and effect change. VNSNY, now the largest home health care agency in the United States continues the pioneering work begun by Wald more than 100 years ago. Our nurses, therapists, social workers, and other staff serve more than 31,000 patients every day throughout New York City and in two suburban counties. Our agency provides more than $30 million in charitable care and community benefits annually, including direct care to nearly 6,000 patients who are uninsured or underinsured.

Here's are links to some of many websites offering more background on Lillian Wald's life.