Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
Public Health Nurse Anna B. Heldman was known as The Angel of the Hill for her efforts in Pittsburgh.
Born in 1873, public health nurse Anna B. Heldman worked at the Allegheny Hospital for two years before she graduated from the South Side Hospital Training School for Nurses. After her experience as a nurse during the Spanish-American War, Heldman began her 38 year long career as a public health nurse, working primarily in the Hill District of Pittsburgh which was also known as “the greatest typhoid fever town in the world” at the turn of the century. Heldman did research for the establishment of a Children’s Welfare Division in the Department of Health, and even established a system of medical inspection in the city schools. The “Angel of the Hill” passed away in 1940.
Anna Barbara Heldman was born in Castle Shannon, in Allegheny County, on January 15, 1873. She had wanted to be a nurse since the age 16, and finally got the opportunity to do what she loved in 1893 when she was hired by South Side Hospital. Even though Heldman had no experience or training for the job, she was hired as a relief night nurse and worked at Allegheny Hospital for two years.
It was after her two years serving as a relief night nurse when the South Side Hospital Training School for Nurses was founded. Anna Heldman and her good friend, Anna J. Cook, were given a year’s worth of credit for the two years of practical nursing they had done at Allegheny Hospital. Both Heldman and Cook were in the first graduating class of the South Side Hospital Training School for Nurses on April 8, 1897. This was a huge accomplishment for Heldman, and was just the beginning of her long and successful career as nurse and later to be Director of Personal Service. Heldman would later on continue to stay good friends with Anna Cook, and even work together in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, where Heldman is best known for work as a public health nurse in the community.
The people in the Hill District referred to Heldman as “Angel of the Hill District,” because she had touched so many lives of men, women, and children. She never married nor had any children, but she made the community of the Hill District her family and took very good care of them. In the beginning of Heldman’s career as a nurse, she volunteered and signed a contract for her services as a nurse in the Medical Department of the United States Army during the Spanish-American War. She served in Florida, Georgia, and Cuba, and only received $30 a month. She was recognized years later for her services to the United States Army, and received a pension of $12 per month. She was also issued a Veteran Certificate on April 12, 1928. After serving in the Spanish-American War, Heldman served as a private duty nurse for a few months, before she started her 38 year long career as a staff member at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement in Pittsburgh.
Anna Heldman disliked serving as a private duty nurse because she thought it was too tame compared to her experience as a nurse in the Spanish-American War. In 1902, she had found out about a new type of nursing called “visiting,” and that’s when she started her career at the Columbian School and Settlement later to be known as the Irene Kaufmann Settlement. At the beginning of Heldman’s career there, she became discouraged and considered herself a failure, but soon enough she realized the work that she did made her very happy.
At the turn of the century, Pittsburgh was known as “hell with the lid off,” because it was crowded with many European immigrants where tuberculosis and the typhoid fever were a major health issue. The city of Pittsburgh had high morbidity and mortality rates because of the diseases associated there. What was needed was a visiting nurse who could help and educate the newly arriving immigrants on hygiene and prevention of disease. Anna Heldman and the Columbian School and Settlement were a perfect fit for each other, and Heldman made this her number one priority for 38 years until her death in 1940. She served the immigrants coming into the Hill District as a visiting nurse, supervisor of nurses when the Columbian Council School and Settlement became the Irene Kaufmann Settlement in 1909, and in the final years of her career as Director of Personal Service.
Because of the increasing number of immigrants from Europe coming into the Hill District, it was considered a “melting pot” or a place where immigrants of different cultures or races form an integrated society. That’s exactly what the Hill District of Pittsburgh was at the turn of the century. Heldman had learned many languages including Yiddish, Syrian, Lithuanian, Polish, and Italian. She had already spoken German which helped her learn Yiddish (Hebrew), and this helped her get right down to the personal problems of the Jewish community. People in the community also referred to Anna as “Heldie,” and even the town gangsters feared her. Heldie shut down gambling spots, saloons, and disorderly houses throughout the Hill District.
Ida Selavan quotes Heldman describing the living conditions of the Hill District: “The row of houses at the rear was a social worker’s bad dream…Windows were broken in almost every house…In places the alley was filled with garbage three or four feet deep…the large rats scampered into rear yards…The odor from the alley could never be described; it had to be experiences.” As the years passed, Heldman became a familiar sight in the streets and alleys of the Hill District, and was usually always wearing her nurses black satchel.
Heldman was very dedicated to her job and was on call 24 hours every day for 38 years. Later in her career, she became more of a public health social worker rather than a nurse often seen in the background rather than on the front-lines. For example, when she found that hand-rolled cigars were sealed with saliva, she campaigned for inspection laws to curb the spread of tuberculosis. She fought for and got better housing conditions for the Hill District’s residents, stricter labor laws in cigar factories, better schools, workingmen’s compensation, well baby clinics, and the first legal aid service. She also established a system of medical inspection in the city schools, and did research for the establishment of a Children’s Welfare Division in the Department of Health.
She became a member of the Russell Sage Foundation’s health team to do a survey on the city of Pittsburgh. Heldman and her staff nursed 1,047 flu and pneumonia victims during the epidemic of 1918 that followed World War I. Heldman was known to be a very sympathetic woman and a great listener when it came to other people’s problems. In 1917, her work became more focused on social work duties rather than nursing, so her office became the Personal Service Department. This is when her primary focus became helping the newly arriving immigrants. The Irene Kaufmann Settlement was a place that helped the immigrants, and Heldman was the main component to this center. It was later renamed the Anna B. Heldman Community Center, and even had a street renamed, Heldman Street, by the city of Pittsburgh to show its appreciation for her years of service.
Anna B. Heldman passed away after a short illness on March 15, 1940, at the Magee Hospital, Pittsburgh. She served 38 years as a staff member of the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, first as a nurse, and later as Director of Personal Service. Today the settlement is known as the Community Chest-United Fund Agency of Pittsburgh. There is also an Anna B. Heldman Memorial Fund, and helps with neighboring settlement services in her memory.
Bates, Barbara. Bargaining for Life: A Social History of Tuberculosis, 1876-1938. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1992.
Brem, Ralph. “‘Mother of Hill’ Guardian Angel For Teeming Swarms of Slums.” Pittsburgh Press 13 May 1962, sec.2: 1.
“News about Nursing.” The American Journal of Nursing. Vol. 39, No. 9 (1939): 1040-1054.
“Obituaries.” The American Journal of Nursing. Vol. 40, No. 5 (1940): 607-610.
Selavan, Ida Cohen. “Angel in Hell-with-the-Lid-off.” The American Journal of Nursing. Vol. 80, No. 11 (1980): 2064-2066.
Zawoysky, Mary. “The Irene Kaufmann Settlement.” Historical Society Notes and Documents. Western Pennsylvania History. Vol.59, No.1 (1976): 115-117.