Anna B. Heldman was 29 when she became a visiting nurse in the Hill District, where she spent nearly four decades caring for the sick and infirm. She became such a recognized figure and vital force in the community that city officials renamed Overhill Street, which ran beside the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, in her honor.
The year was 1902 when Anna Heldman began her public health crusade. The Hill District was home to immigrant Jews, African-Americans, Italians, Lithuanians, Poles and Syrians.
A native of Castle Shannon, Miss Heldman finished her nurses’ training at South Side Hospital in 1897. For 38 years, she worked at the Irene Kaufmann Settlement, a place where immigrants could learn to speak English, read, sew and obtain something as precious as hope or money — U.S. citizenship.
The neighborhood often smelled of dried tobacco because many Jewish women and children rolled cigars in their homes to earn a living. When Anna Heldman learned that those hand-rolled cigars were sealed with saliva, she campaigned for inspection laws to curb the spread of tuberculosis, which, along with typhoid, was common in the neighborhood.
With her satchel, the determined nurse became a public health pioneer as she walked past saloons, gambling halls, ash heaps, clothes lines, bath houses and outhouses. She fought for and got better schools and living conditions, stricter labor laws in the stogie factories, legal aid, compensation for injured workers and well baby clinics.
Fluent in German, “Heldie,” also learned Italian, Lithuanian, Polish, Syrian and Yiddish so she could communicate with her patients. More importantly, she knew the language of compassion and kept many confidences. In the deadly flu pandemic of 1918, she nursed more than 1,000 flu and pneumonia victims.
When she died in March 1940 at age 67, her body was brought to the Irene Kaufmann Settlement House. Thousands filed past her coffin to pay their respects to the fine, formidable woman they called the Angel of the Hill District.