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Lillian Wald

A film by Bonnie Silva and Russ Barry

Lillian Wald will tell the story of the irresistible young woman who influences everyone from gangsters and push-cart peddlers to Presidents, Prime Ministers, and millionaires.

Lillian D. Wald (1867 – 1940) was a social reform genius and public nurse pioneer. It was said by her suffragist friend Lavinia Dock that Lillian used her independent home nursing as her “open sesame,” and from there she used those open doors to address other pressing social problems. Wald’s influence permeated every corner of Progressive Era society from the East Side’s fish markets to the White House, and spurned female-led crusades for the rights of children, laborers, immigrants, and women.

At age twenty two Lillian Wald dismisses the idea of marriage and is admitted to New York Hospital’s School of Nursing, where she’s introduced to padded cells, and the operating room. She graduates in 1891, and works at a Juvenile Asylum on 176th Street. After a year of being completely disillusioned with what she finds there, Lillian leaves the Asylum determined to change things – to do better. She becomes a medical student at Women’s Medical College, one of the schools founded in protest against the exclusive attitude adopted by the mens’ medical colleges.


In 1893 Lillian is asked to form and teach a class on Henry Street to help identify candidates for nurses’ training – a class that will be conducted on the East Side for immigrants. On her first day as an instructor, a little girl walks into the classroom and utters “mommy, baby, blood,” over and over. She takes Lillian’s hand and leads her over heaps of rubbish to a world Lillian didn’t know existed. Shocked by how the other half lives and reeling from her “baptism by fire” in the little girl’s tenement home, Lillian doesn’t return to medical school because “it all seemed so academic, so remote.” Instead, she vows to give her life as a nurse and a woman to all of humanity – then sets out to alter history.

Producer: Lillian Wald



Associated Members

Bonnie Silva, Producer


We are grateful for the generous support of our sponsors:

Massachusetts Cultural Council
Lowel Cultural Council
Cabot Family Charitable Trust
Liberty Mutual Foundation
City of Boston Arts and Culture