Clara Barton: Nurse, Activist, and Founder of the American Red Cross

Alexa Davidson, MSN, RN
Updated September 30, 2022
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    Throughout American history, there are people who decide to put the lives and needs of others ahead of their own and create organizations that change the world. Clara Barton was a nursing professional who was never married because she knew...
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    Did you know that a nurse invented the crash cart? How about the feeding tube? Also a nurse’s idea.

    When it comes to developing new ways to help patients, there is no one better placed than a nurse. Since the 1800s, nurse innovators like Clara Barton have helped blaze the trail for nurses, gaining respect for the profession and patients.

    Learn how Clara Barton’s desire to amplify the voices of others led to the founding of the American Red Cross — and how her humanitarian efforts continue to impact healthcare today.

    A Lifetime of Humanitarianism

    On December 25, 1821, Clara Barton was born in North Oxford, Massachusetts. Her father was a veteran and prominent farmer, and her mother was a homemaker. Her brothers followed in her father’s footsteps by becoming soldiers, but Barton had bigger plans than becoming a homemaker.

    Barton had a deep desire to take action during times of need and naturally fell into the role of the family caregiver. When she was just 10 years old, she cared for her brother, who became seriously injured after falling from a barn roof.

    Barton’s family support would carry her through her unique career and life path. She yearned to join her brothers on the battlefield, but this wasn’t an option for women in the 1800s. Barton created her own path to helping others — as a teacher, a nurse, and a crisis coordinator.

    On his deathbed, Barton’s father encouraged her to follow her passions and carry out her unique journey.

    Women’s Suffrage

    When she was 18, Barton left home to become a teacher in Oxford, Massachusetts. As an educator, she helped schools grow from small classrooms to large institutions. She established the first free public school in New Jersey to help underserved children receive an education.

    Her efforts were quickly overshadowed when a male principal replaced her, however. This was when Barton knew it was time to leave teaching.

    She moved to Washington D.C., to work in the U.S. Patent Office as one of the first women to work for the federal government. Barton worked as a copyist and clerk, but she had little job security in the male-dominated industry. Because it was rare for women to work in this setting, their positions were often eliminated without warning or reason.

    The unfairness of gender inequalities in the workplace was not lost on Clara Barton, though.

    Reflecting later on what it means to know your worth, Barton said, “I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man’s work for less than a man’s pay.”

    As Clara Barton’s career path evolved, her passion for women’s rights deepened. She became an outspoken supporter of the women’s suffrage movement. She was good friends with Susan B. Anthony, an advocate who spent more than 50 years of her life lobbying for women’s rights, particularly the right to vote.

    Barton spoke at five conventions for the National American Woman Suffrage Association. During one women’s suffrage speech, she spoke about her perception of human rights.

    “There was never any question in my mind in regard to this,” she said. “I did not purchase my freedom with a price; I was born free; and when, as a younger woman, I heard the subject discussed, it seemed simply ridiculous that any sensible, sane person should question it.”

    Abolitionist Movement

    In addition to advocating for women’s rights, Clara Barton was an outspoken supporter of the abolitionist movement during the Civil War. She was forward-thinking and confident that African Americans would be secured freedom. Barton used her teaching skills to educate enslaved people during the war so they’d be prepared for life after emancipation.

    She worked with abolitionists to advocate for enslaved people’s freedom and ensure they’d be granted rights as free people. She and Anthony were close friends with Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist who helped African Americans secure equal rights after becoming free.

    Human Rights on the Battlefield

    On April 12, 1861, the Civil War officially began when shots were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Days later, soldiers arrived in Washington, D.C., wounded and beaten following an attack in Baltimore.

    With her career at the Capitol dwindling, Clara Barton was in the right place at the right time. She immediately went to action gathering supplies and aid for the wounded soldiers. This would begin her journey as a nurse and aid worker, earning her the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield.”

    For the rest of her life, Barton would travel the world to provide relief in similar crises, treating the wounded and delivering medical supplies. Even at times of war, she made sure all soldiers were treated with dignity.

    How Clara Barton Influenced Nursing

    Clara Barton took the initiative to manage emergencies and jump into action during times of crisis. Between her experiences in the Civil War and overseas, she would become an expert at coordinating the moving parts of emergencies. Her impact is felt in nursing and healthcare to this day.

    Civil War Efforts

    When she wasn’t providing nursing care on the battlefield, Barton ensured there were enough medical supplies available to treat the soldiers. Eventually, she created a distribution agency to gather supplies and coordinate where they went. When there were no couriers available, Barton would risk her life to distribute supplies herself.

    Though Barton worked for the Union Army, she also provided support to Confederate soldiers. Throughout the Civil War, Barton traveled across the South with military leaders (like her brother, Captain David Barton) to prepare for upcoming battles. She would create makeshift hospitals at each site and distribute supplies as needed. Her ability to support both sides during the war demonstrates the equity of healthcare.

    Beyond providing medical care, Barton recognized the anguish of soldiers being separated from their families. In 1865 she opened the Missing Soldiers Office, which helped identify 22,000 men.

    Clara Barton’s Time Overseas

    The Civil War ended in 1865 when General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. Although the war was over, Barton’s legacy was just beginning.

    She would spend the next several years advocating for African American rights and women’s rights at home in the Northeast. She delivered lectures about her experiences during the war and advocated for the women’s suffrage movement.

    Barton’s health began to fail as she suffered from exhaustion, so she traveled to Europe to recuperate. It was during this trip that Barton learned about the Red Cross.

    The Franco-Prussian War was ongoing in France, and Clara Barton once again returned to action. She stayed in Paris for six weeks to provide relief efforts. She gained experience working with the global Red Cross, which provided neutral relief efforts to any war victims in need of aid.

    Inspired by this organization, Clara Barton returned to Washington, D.C., and she lobbied to open a Red Cross in America. She also lobbied to ratify the Geneva Convention. This would later go on to establish international guidelines on how people are treated during wars. After caring for so many soldiers in her time, this would be a concrete way for her to secure human rights and protect the wounded in the future.

    The politicians heard her pleas. On May 21, 1881, Clara Barton founded the American Red Cross. In 1882, the U.S. ratified the Geneva Convention. These accomplishments were monumental in Clara Barton’s career, but her contributions to healthcare and humanity are immeasurable.

    The Red Cross’s Impacts on Healthcare

    Clara Barton served as the president of the Red Cross for 23 years. As history evolved, her efforts shifted from helping people during wartimes to helping them during crises like natural disasters.

    Throughout her time with the Red Cross, Barton personally helped with crisis management by:

    • Providing shelter and relief to African American victims disproportionately affected by a hurricane in Sea Island, South Carolina
    • Directing aid workers at the Armenian Conflict in the Ottoman Empire
    • Coordinating care for the wounded at the Spanish-American War in Cuba, also advocating for the use of female nurses and continuing her efforts to promote the underserved and underrepresented

    Today, the American Red Cross continues to provide disaster relief and prevention to those in need. The organization has helped countless people globally by maintaining Clara Barton’s passion for human rights and equality.

    Their mission statement continues to reflect everything Clara Barton stood for:

    “The American Red Cross prevents and alleviates human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors.”

    Through its dedication to public health and safety, the American Red Cross has a crucial impact on healthcare.

    • The organization offers programs like cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid training to help save lives outside of the hospital.
    • Healthcare providers can receive professional life-saving certifications through the organization.

    By preparing individuals not employed in healthcare to respond to emergencies in the public, the Red Cross helps keep people out of hospitals. This has been especially important throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. The organization also set initiatives in motion to collect blood at a time when donations were in critical demand.

    The Red Cross responds to over 60,000 emergencies per year. Currently, the organization is coordinating efforts for the war in Ukraine. They help provide shelter, clothes, and food to families who have fled their homes.

    You can carry on Clara Barton’s legacy by donating your time or resources to the American Red Cross to help others in need.

    Page last reviewed September 2, 2022