Nursing with the American Red Cross


Nursing with the American Red Cross

A proud history from an orgnization started by a nurse

By Katy Allgeyer
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Whether a natural disaster hits foreign shores, such as the devastating 9.0 magnitude earthquake in Japan, or closer to home, the tornadoes that tore through the South and Mid-West this spring, we pretty much can take it for granted that the American Red Cross will send qualified nurses to provide relief aid to victims. In fact, we expect to see that instantly recognizable and oh-so-reassuring graphic symbol of the blocky red cross on the pure white background wherever there is need of extreme relief effort in times of crisis worldwide. But the American Red Cross and its staff of dedicated nurses—both paid and volunteers—are not only active in times of calamity. They also provide direct services to the community participating in blood collection programs and developing and teaching courses that benefit public health, such as HIV/AIDS awareness and CPR, to name a few.

The history of nursing has its roots buried deep in the aftermath of wars. The Crimean War of 1854, where Florence Nightingale was on the scene caring for injured soldiers, introduced professional nursing care to the battlefield. The American Civil War soon followed. With extraordinarily large numbers of casualties and glaringly few public hospital facilities to meet the challenge, self-trained nurses and family members took care of the victims. Clara Barton, amateur nurse, witnessed the extreme need and did much to gain publicity for implementing and expanding the public health system. Professional nursing schools were part of this change.


Barton’s position as “lady in charge” of the Union Army battlefield hospitals and her appointment by President Lincoln to find out what happened to missing Civil War soldiers led her to be a popular fixture on the national lecture circuit of the day. However, after those intense years of service and traveling, she basically experienced nursing burnout. Barton traveled to Europe for vacation on the advice of her doctors. Not one to sit around relaxing, Barton soon discovered the fledgling group known as the International Committee of the Red Cross, based in Switzerland, founded by Henri Dunant. She promptly volunteered to serve as a Red Cross nurse in the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71).

This experience motivated Barton. When she returned to the U.S. in 1881, she founded a national organization known as the American Red Cross, in affiliation with the International Red Cross. In addition, this pioneering nurse lobbied heavily for the American government to adopt the Geneva Convention, which calls for the protection of those injured in war. Henri Dunant had been instrumental in creating and getting 12 European countries to sign the Geneva Convention. Barton’s efforts paid off when it was adopted by the U.S. Congress in 1882. This is particularly inspiring since women didn’t even have the right to vote, yet Clara Barton—like most all nurses in today’s world—had personal power, strength and resourcefulness that gave her the courage to make a huge impact on her world and ours today.


The American Red Cross’s mission has always been to provide “a system of national relief and to apply the same in mitigating the sufferings caused by war, pestilence, famine and other calamities.” Nurses served mostly on a volunteer basis, recruited under special circumstances. For example, in 1888, there was a severe—and deadly—outbreak of yellow fever in Florida. American Red Cross nurses became famous for jumping off a moving train to reach one small town so badly afflicted by the disease that the railroad would not stop there. Talk about bravery—those Red Cross nurses set the standard!

Early Red Cross volunteer nurses were called on in times of massive floods (the 1889 Johnstown, Pennsylvania, flood that killed 2,000 and left another 25,000 homeless), disaster relief (the 1893 Sea Islands Hurricane) and wars (the short-lived Spanish-American War inspired 700 Red Cross nurses to serve, which led to the forming of the Army Nursing Corps soon after).


In 1909, the organization strengthened its nursing services by creating a formal nursing division called the Red Cross Nursing Service and appointed nurse Jane Delano as director. Delano, a relative of future president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was a go-getter. With the new nursing division under her direction, Delano implemented several programs. She created a Red Cross nurses’ reserve that was prepared to serve with the military in case of wartime (a prescient move since World War I broke out just five years later).

Delano expanded nursing services in the community, creating the Rural Nursing Service that later evolved into the Town & Country Nursing Program, which served to educate domestic homemakers on first aid, home nursing, nutrition, and other public health issues. This initiative eventually became called the Bureau of Public Health Nursing in 1918 and underscores the role of Jane Delano and the American Red Cross in inspiring a government sponsored public health care system in America.

That same year, the Red Cross introduced the Volunteer Nurses’ Aide Service. Trained by nurses, these volunteers took over many of the mundane chores that nurses of the time were burdened with, freeing them up to concentrate on medical tasks. A good thing, too, because a natural calamity also hit worldwide that year: the Spanish flu.

With a death toll that eventually numbered 22 million worldwide—more than 500,000 of them in the U.S.—the American Red Cross provided more than 15,000 volunteer nurses in response to this emergency.


Prior to 1930, there was no Veteran’s Administration and the returning WW I vets were being cared for by American Red Cross nurses in spartan military hospitals. The American Red Cross also served as kind of a safety net for the general population who couldn’t afford private healthcare, as no public healthcare system was in place. In 1935, the U.S. government finally recognized its responsibility and established the Social Security system, directly inspired by the American Red Cross. One might take that further and say that our nation’s social conscience is a direct legacy of one of America’s first nurses, Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross.


Since its inception 127 years ago, the American Red Cross nurses are still contributing to the fabric of the American healthcare system. At last count, more than 40,000 nurses are involved with the American Red Cross in both paid and volunteer capacities at all levels within the organization. Nurses serve the Red Cross in providing direct services such as local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), health fairs, volunteer in military clinics and hospitals, blood collection teams and first aid stations. Nurses are also involved in teaching and developing courses in CPR/first aid, automatic emergency defibrillator, disaster health services, nurse assistant training, babysitting, and family caregiving. In addition, nurses have vital roles in management and supervisory positions, including chapter and blood services regional executives. Finally, nurses are functioning as local Red Cross board members or serving on the national board of governors.

It’s fair to say that nurses are the backbone of the American Red Cross and the participation of nurses nationwide is vital to the survival of this important organization. Full and part-time positions exist in the Office of the Chief Nurse of the American Red Cross. Those positions include the chief nurse and national chairman of nursing, volunteer and paid nurses, and support staff which includes a nurse historian and student nursing interns.


Opportunities for student nursing involvement in the American Red Cross abound. Volunteering with the American Red Cross provides a setting that is relevant to learning nursing skills, applying what you’re learning, and can teach valuable leadership skills, too. As a volunteer, you’ll be asked to review your own personal interests and select volunteer work within the organization that is most meaningful to you and your studies.

The range of areas you might volunteer in runs the gamut from support services (public relations, human resources, fundraising, public speaking) to taking/teaching courses (workplace safety, HIV/AIDS education, child care training, swimming), providing direct services (blood drives, cholesterol/BP screening, disaster preparedness), and leadership participation (youth leadership council, Red Cross committees, college student nurse representative), just to list a few.

Professional nurses and student nurses are welcome and encouraged to join local chapters of the American Red Cross and become involved in their community. The American Red Cross is set up differently in each community, providing different services according to the needs and resources of that community. If a program you’re interested in is not offered within your local chapter, nurses are invited to help develop and facilitate new programs for that chapter.

Just as we can be certain that there will be another disaster in the future, we can also guarantee that the American Red Cross nurses will be at the frontline. We can count on American Red Cross nursing volunteers to provide a lifeline and relief to victims in the community. Meanwhile, we’re simply glad that the American Red Cross nurses are on the scene in our daily lives, serving the community in outreach programs like blood drives and fitness education. 



For general information on the American Red Cross, visit

• American Red Cross Blood Services, Southern California Region,

 • There are 38 chapters in California listed at the national website. We’ll get you started with the American Red Cross of the Greater Los Angeles Area,; 100 Red Cross Circle, Pomona, CA 91768.

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