Filed Under Healthcare

Public Health Activist Lillian Wald has Cincinnati Roots

World famous pioneer of public nursing and settlement houses, Lillian Wald, was born in Cincinnati and spent her early years in both Cincinnati and Dayton. From a small house in the East End, Wald rose to national fame for her work with immigrants and other low-income residents of New York City.

Lillian D. Wald is most often associated with New York City where she lived and worked for over 50 years, yet she was born here in Cincinnati in a humble frame building on the Ohio River at 598 East Front Street. Wald’s Cincinnati roots receive a passing mention at best in the many books and articles about her work, but digging into city directories and censuses from her early years, reveal a few things that might surprise the even scholars who study her.

Today Wald’s birthplace is a vacant lot at 1305 Riverside Drive.
Lillian’s father was born in Poland around 1834 and immigrated to the U.S. as a young man.Historical records list him as Marcus, Marks, Max, and M.D. Lillian’s mother was Prussian immigrant Minnie Schwarz from Dayton Ohio. Lillian’s parents were married in Cincinnati on August 15, 1859 by the Rabbi of the Polish Temple, Adath Israel. Mr. Wald began as a grocer on East Front Street, but soon became a traveling eyeglass salesman. While most accounts list him as an occulist or optician, the 1870 census gives his profession as “peddling spectacles.” The family moved around in Lillian’s early years–city directories place them in Cincinnati in 1863 and in Dayton, near Minnie’s parents, by 1866. Though Wald claimed to remember little of her life in Ohio, she had fond memories of adventures in an oversized playhouse with real furniture built by her Grandfather, Guttman Schwarz, and a beautiful garden in the family’s backyard on Second Street in Dayton.

Lillian was the third of the Wald’s four children. Brother Albert was born in 1860, then Julia in 1863, Lillian on March 10, 1864, and baby Augustus in 1866. It is worth noting that Lillian’s 1864 birth year is not the one that appears in her biographies or on her tombstone in Rochester. Studying the census reveals that at some point, she fudged her age. The 1870 census lists her already reading at 6 years old, and she is 16 in the 1880, but by the time of her 1900 passport application she had subtracted two years from her age, and by 1910 she had shaved off an additional year.
In 1878 at the age of 12 (or 9, depending on which date you believe), Lillian moved with her parents to Rochester, New York. Her father continued his business in Ohio and is listed at 182 Poplar Street in the West End in 1883. In 1884 he appears in Dayton directories boarding at the Phillips House where the Dayton directory lists Lillian’s younger brother Gus, now a “salesman,” boarding the next year. Grandparents Guttman and Fredericka (Freida) Schwarz, must have remained connected to Dayton, as Freida returned there after Guttman’s death in 1892.

After spending her teenage years attending a private academy in Rochester, Lillian Wald enrolled in nursing school in New York City in 1889. Upon graduation in 1891 she briefly enrolled in the Women’s Medical College of New York City (founded by Elizabeth Balckwell who also lived in Cincinnati as a child), but Wald found the abysmal conditions among the city’s poor more pressing than medical school and withdrew to live among those she served in the Lower East Side. In 1894 Wald and friend Mary Brewster founded the Nurse’s Settlement in a red brick building at 265 Henry Street gifted to them by philanthropist Jacob Schiff. The settlement soon became known as Henry Street Settlement and the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. From its origins as a nursing service, Henry Street Settlement has evolved to include a full range of services including healthcare, childcare, education, and the arts–still thriving today.

Lillian Wald helped to create organizations including the National Association for Public Health Nursing, the Teachers’ College nursing program, the New York Public School’s Department of Special Education, and American Union Against Militarism (the parent organization of today’s American Civil Liberties Union). In 1909 Henry Street Settlement hosted the founding conference of an African American organization which would become the NAACP. In her nursing and social justice work, Lillian Wald moved within a world dominated by powerful women including Jane Addams, Florence Kelley, Crystal Eastman, Eleanor Roosevelt and others.

Many historians have wondered if any of the women in Wald’s orbit were romantic partners and in 2022 Henry Street was recognized by the National Parks Service as a site of American LGBTQ history, based largely on amorous letters from Mabel Hyde Kitterage and Helen Arthur discovered in Wald’s papers.

One other little-known detail of Wald’s family is revealed by searching for them in the census, but was probably unknown to Wald herself. Incredibly, M.D. and Minnie Wald were enumerated by the census taker with their children at their home in Rochester on June 1, 1880, then again on June 22 in Marshalltown, Iowa, and then again in that same city on July 1. Each time M.D’s age and profession differ slightly (maybe by the same rascally impulse which led Lillian to fudge her age), yet there is no doubt that Lillian’s parents were each counted three times in the 1880 census! This extra contribution to the nation’s decennial count, barely begins to anticipate the oversized contributions their Cincinnati-born daughter would make in her extraordinary lifetime.

Images

Lillian Wald in her nurse’s uniform in 1893
Lillian Wald in her nurse’s uniform in 1893 Source: Image from https://jwa.org/media/lillian-wald-in-nurses-uniform
Today Wald’s birthplace is a vacant lot at 1305 Riverside Drive.
Today Wald’s birthplace is a vacant lot at 1305 Riverside Drive. Creator: Anne Delano Steinert
Lillian Wald’s father, “spectacle peddler” M. D. Wald
Lillian Wald’s father, “spectacle peddler” M. D. Wald Source: https://jwa.org/media/lillian-walds-father-max-d-wald
Lillian Wald’s 1891 nursing school graduation photo. She is seated at left.
Lillian Wald’s 1891 nursing school graduation photo. She is seated at left. Source: Photo from https://healthmatters.nyp.org/lillian-wald-a-pioneer-in-public-health-and-serving-the-community/
Lillian Wald’s birthplace on Front Street was down the steep hill from Eden Park and directly across the railroad tracks from the Ohio River. Wald’s father worked here as a grocer when Wald was born on March 10, 1864.
Lillian Wald’s birthplace on Front Street was down the steep hill from Eden Park and directly across the railroad tracks from the Ohio River. Wald’s father worked here as a grocer when Wald was born on March 10, 1864. Source: 1883-1884 Robinson Atlas.

Location

1305 Riverside Drive, Cincinnati OH

Metadata

Anne Delano Steinert, “Public Health Activist Lillian Wald has Cincinnati Roots,” Cincinnati Sites and Stories, accessed June 15, 2024, https://stories.cincinnatipreservation.org/items/show/214.