Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross

Profiles in Nursing

Clara Barton, Founder of the American Red Cross

A fearless battlefield nurse, her good works live on today.

By Suzanne Ridgway
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Clara Barton was a driven and dynamic 19th century woman whose life was a cycle of hard work in service to others and bouts of depression and health problems. She became a schoolteacher while still in her teens and later founded a free public school. She was a government office worker when women were rare in such workplaces, and a fearless battlefield nurse during the Civil War. But she is probably best known as the founder of the American Red Cross.

After three years of active service as a nurse on the front lines of the Civil War, distributing supplies and caring for the wounded, she spent another three years establishing and raising funds for the Office of Correspondence, which published information about missing soldiers. Having worked herself into a fragile state of health, she went to Europe for a rest, where she found instead another project that would become a lifelong mission. Clara learned about the International Red Cross, born as a result of a conference in Geneva six years earlier. Representatives of 16 nations had met with the goal of establishing an organization that would be “the relief of the wounded in armies in the field.” The purpose of the International Red Cross Treaty was, “to render neutral and immune from injury in war, the sick and wounded and all who cared for them.”

The Franco-Prussian War broke out during Clara’s stay in Europe, and she was asked to serve in the new International Red Cross. For three years, Clara worked to provide relief in war-torn areas and was later honored by both the French and the Germans for her impartial assistance. Returning to the United States, Clara resolved to organize a US. national headquarters for the Red Cross with smaller offices and local chapters throughout the nation. Not only would they prepare for possible wartime service, but also for peacetime emergencies such as epidemics, fires, floods, and other disasters, directing charitable support wherever it was needed. Dr. Appia, president of the International Red Cross, advised her to win the support of the American public and the President of the United States and to secure the adoption of the Geneva Treaty by the United States Senate.

Clara eventually gained the support of President Garfield and held the first national meeting to organize the Association of the American Red Cross in May 1881. A few months later, in Dansville, New York, Clara’s “country residence,” her friends and neighbors there, “desirous of paying a compliment to her…and doing honor to themselves,” established the first local society of the American Red Cross, even before the Congress ratified the article to the Red Cross Treaty. It was only one month later that this first chapter went into action, collecting $300 for the victims of a disastrous forest fire in Michigan that left 5,000 people homeless.

The following March, the US Senate ratified the Treaty of the Geneva Convention and Clara Barton became the first president of the American Red Cross at the age of 60. She held this post for the next 23 years. The American Red Cross continues today in its mission to relieve human suffering without regard to political or religious alliance.

This article is from workingnurse.com.

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