The Nurse of the Lower East Side

By Phin Upham

Lillian Wald spent her childhood in both New York and Ohio. Born into a middle-class family, Wald had a formal education and a good upbringing. At the age of 16, the young girl applied for Vassar College, who told her to apply again when she was older. Not easily deterred, Wald shifted her focus to nursing.

She began attending New York Hospital’s School of Nursing in 1899, graduated in 1891 and began working in a juvenile asylum. The orphanage was decrepit, to say the least, but she managed. She soon took jobs in New York’s Lower East Side, helping the city’s poor and sick as a resident nurse visiting various hospitals in the area.

She found a partner in a woman named Mary Brewster, and the two settled into a room in the Lower East Side to care for the patients around them. She became integrated into the community, coining the phrase “public health nurse” to describe the work she was doing.

Wald advocated for changes to public schooling that reflected basic health and hygiene, and she helped to organize the first public nursing system the world had ever seen. Believing strongly in self-reliance, Wald taught the women around her how to cook and sew in community forums as well.

Wald never married, but spent her life living with several female companions. Her writings suggest strong attractions to some of them, but she never carried on any serious intimate relationship. Until her death in 1940, Wald was all-consumed in her work.

About the Author: Phin Upham is an investor at a family office/ hedgefund, where he focuses on special situation illiquid investing. Before this position, Phin Upham was working at Morgan Stanley in the Media and Telecom group. You may contact Phin on his Phin Upham website or LinkedIn page.

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