Lillian Wald, Founder, Visiting Nurse Service of New York

May 8, 2020

As part of our Discover Flatiron series about New York resiliency and to honor nurses during the newly renamed annual National Nurses Month, the Flatiron Partnership reflects on the origin of the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. The nonprofit, healthcare organization was founded in 1893 by Lillian Wald, who was America’s pioneer public health nurse. She was also a contributing policymaker for the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company, one of the country’s leading and largest insurance businesses located in the neighborhood at 23rd Street and Madison Avenue.

Cincinnati, Ohio native Lillian Wald was born into a successful merchant family in 1867 that later relocated to Rochester, New York. Wald led a life of privilege through her private school education, but by 1889, she decided to pursue a more meaningful existence. “A nurse came to attend to Miss Wald’s sister, then expecting her first child,” reported The New York Times in Wald’s obituary. “A brief talk with this nurse stirred in her desire to devote her life to the sick.” Wald enrolled in New York Hospital Training School for Nurses, where she also taught women about home care and hygiene and later graduated in 1891.

Wald would soon experience another life-changing event, which led her and friend Mary Brewster to launch the nonprofit, healthcare organization that would become known as the Visiting Nurse Service of New York on the Lower East Side. “One morning, the daughter of one of Wald’s students came into the classroom in tears, saying that her mother was sick,” notes the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. “The child’s mother had been hemorrhaging since giving birth two days earlier. Wald ministered to the woman, cleaned the bed and room, and comforted the family. The family was so grateful to Lillian Wald that as she turned to go, they kissed her hands.” The incident left a lasting impression on Wald and led her to found the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. “Nursing is love in action,” Wald once said, “and there is no finer manifestation of it than the care of the poor and disabled in their own homes.”

Photo Credit: Patricia Corcoran

When outbreaks of polio, influenza, and diphtheria followed by mandatory quarantines hit New York City during the first decade of the 20th century, “Wald’s agency was instrumental in providing nursing care,” states VNSNY. The New York Times reported on November 13, 1926, “The women who go into homes where there may be infection, fearless and eager to serve, have given New Yorkers a sense of deep gratification.”

One health advertisement for the public crafted by Wald and team read in part: “There is nothing in the epidemic of Spanish Influenza to inspire panic… A stern task confronts our women–not only trained women, but untrained women. The housewife, the dietitian, the nurses’ aide, the practical nurse, the undergraduate nurse, and the trained nurse herself–all of these are needed.”

By 1909, Wald had expanded her business vision with a proposed partnership with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company. “Armed with data to document that nursing care saves lives,” wrote the American Journal of Public Health in December 1993, “Wald urged Metropolitan Life to hire visiting nurses to care for policyholders during illness.” The Claude Moore Health Sciences Library adds, “The company’s agents would notify the Visiting Nurse Association when a family needed help, and the company paid the nursing association 50¢ (in 1909) for each visit ($12 today). The experiment was a resounding success.”

Wald had immense pride in VNSNY’s unwavering purpose in helping others. She once indicated that “those familiar with the nurses are amazingly impressed by the quality of their work and the initiative they take, not only in their profession but in the social problems so intimately identified with their service.” When she died of heart disease at the age of 73 in 1940, cites VNSNY, “thousands filled Carnegie Hall to celebrate Wald’s remarkable legacy and to hear messages from leaders, including President Franklin D. Roosevelt, commending Lillian Wald’s vision, compassion, and leadership.”

Currently, VSNY “continues to deliver care to the vulnerable New Yorkers who depend on us, including those with COVID-19, to make sure they safely receive the care they need. We care for patients in the home and community, which helps alleviate the pressure on New York hospitals and makes desperately-required beds available for the critical patients who need them.”

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