In 1965, Florence Wald was Associate Professor and Dean of the Mental Health and Psychiatric Nursing Program at Yale University when Dr. Cicely Saunders, medical director of the St. Christopher’s hospice in London, came to Yale and gave a lecture on palliative care. Instilled with social justice values from a young age, Wald was already growing increasingly frustrated working within a medical profession that often overlooked a person’s comfort in the search for a sometimes non-existent cure. She had long felt that end-of-life care reform was needed but did not know that there were doctors who shared her concerns. Dr. Saunders’ lecture spoke deeply to Wald and the English doctor quickly became her mentor and ally. This encounter was the catalyst for Wald’s work in founding the U.S. hospice movement. Just six years later, she opened the first U.S. hospice facility in Branford, Conn.
Florence Sophie Schorske was born in Bronx, N.Y., on April 19, 1917. Her parents, members of the Socialist party, valued education and social democracy. They imparted these principles to their children, exposing them at an early age to New York’s settlement houses and the conditions of working-class America. Florence also learned from the work of Lillian Wald, a nurse who saw community health as an ethically essential part of nursing and espoused public health ideologies. From a young age, Florence had aspirations to become a nurse. However, despite his otherwise liberal-minded tendencies, her father did not want his daughter to go to college. Her mother persuaded her father that college was the best route for their daughter and she was permitted to attend Mount Holyoke College, enrolling in 1934. She graduated in 1938 with a Bachelor of Arts in physiology and sociology and went on to earn a Master of Nursing degree from Yale University in 1941.
Florence believed that nurses should work in the community and administer to patients’ needs from birth until death. She began her nursing career at the Henry Street Settlement in New York and served in the Signal Corps during World War II. During her time in the Signal Corps, she first met Henry Wald, who proposed marriage to her. She declined and returned to academic life. From 1955 to 1957, she taught at the Rutgers School of Nursing and then came back to Yale as director of the Mental Health and Psychiatric Nursing Program. She was promoted to Associate Professor and Dean in 1958. In 1958, after reading of her promotion to Dean, Henry Wald, now a widower with two young children, contacted Florence and the couple reconnected. They were married in 1960.
In 1965, after hearing Dr. Saunders speak, Wald worked hard to reform the curriculum at Yale to incorporate end-of-life care. However, merely reforming the academic curriculum did not satisfy Wald’s desire to change her profession. In 1968, she resigned from the Deanship to study the British approach to care for the terminally ill, continuing at Yale as a research associate and member of the clinical nursing faculty. The first hospice facility in the United States opened in Branford in 1971 and hospice care continues to flourish in the U.S. and around the world.
Wald was promoted to full professor in 1980, while continuing to change the way doctors and medical practitioners approached palliative care. She consistently spoke out against overmedication of the elderly and the overemphasis on technology in the treatment of cancer patients. She published countless articles and book chapters on hospice care and the training. Later in her life, Wald devoted much of her effort to setting up hospice units in American prisons.
Florence Wald dedicated her life to ensuring that people could die in comfort and dignity. It was fitting that she, at the age of 91, died peacefully in her home in 2008. Hospice has become an integral part of end-of-life care in the U.S. with a strong history, thanks in large part to Wald’s work. She received honorary doctorates from Mt. Holyoke College, the University of Bridgeport and Yale University. She was named Distinguished Woman of Connecticut by Governor Ella T. Grasso and was inducted into the National Women's Hall of Fame in 1998.
During This Time
1946 - 1965: Women’s Activism in Conservative Times
The Cold War in the 1950s between the Soviet Union and the United States produced fear of domestic subversion. The McCarthy Era purged suspected Communists from government, the entertainment industry, and universities, and labeled gays and lesbians as un-American security risks. General anxiety contributed to a popular conception of the family as a source of social stability, and reinforced traditional notions of women’s place at home. In 1963, Betty Friedan called this promise of fulfillment through the domestic arts the “feminine mystique,” and advocated instead that women seek personal careers.
For two decades, a burgeoning economy and a growing consumer culture had expanded the availability of jobs for women. Notable was the increase in the workforce of married women, especially middle-class white women and educated women, though they were viewed in the media as working less for a career than to assist their families with needed income or desirable amenities for the home.
Some working-class women in labor unions challenged traditional cultural norms, such as the United Electric, Radio and Machine Workers who achieved non-discrimination clauses in local contracts. Middle-class women moderated their interest in women’s issues, promoting instead advancement through the League of Women Voters, YWCA, and the American Association of University Women. More radical women in Women Strike for Peace demonstrated against the nuclear arms race and were summoned to the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1962. Many activists would join the Civil Rights Movement.
The movement against segregation following World War II dates from the 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, which ruled that segregated schools are inherently unequal and thus a violation of the 14th amendment. African-Americans were given new hope, and in 1955 Rosa Parks, a black seamstress who refused to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama, triggered a bus boycott of critical importance. Black women and white women took part in boycotts, sit-ins, demonstrations, and marches. A culminating achievement in 1965 was the Voting Rights Act pushed through by President Johnson.
Mexican-Americans in the southwest also fought to improve their life and work conditions. In 1962, Dolores Huerta, co-founder with Cesar Chavez of the United Farm Workers, played a leading role in organizing a national boycott of grapes that forced growers to sign a contract with the union.
Other ethnic groups were soon to come to America, enriching its diversity. The Immigrant and Nationality Act of 1965 established an immigration system based on family preference. Half of the new immigrants came from Mexico and Central and South America, while a quarter were from Asia. Two-thirds of the immigrants were women and children. While poverty and acculturation were issues, for many the time-honored American process of upward social mobility had begun.
Special thanks to Barbara E. Lacey, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of History, St. Joseph's College (Hartford, CT) for preparing these historical summaries.