Clara Barton (1821-1912)


Clarissa Harlowe Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, was born in 1821 in Massachusetts.  For two years as a young teenager, Barton helped care for one of her brothers who was seriously ill.  This experience helped Barton overcome an acute shyness and became her primary medical training. 

At the age of eighteen, Barton began teaching school.  In 1854, she ended her teaching career when she moved to Washington, D.C., to work as a recording clerk at the U.S. Patent Office; she was paid an equal salary to her male peers, $1400 annually.  However, the following year, Secretary of the Interior Robert McClelland, who was opposed to women working in government offices, reduced her position from clerk to copyist with a lower salary.  In 1857, the Buchanan Administration eliminated her position at the Patent Office, but in 1860, she returned to her position as copyist after the election of President Abraham Lincoln. 

Barton was working in Washington, D.C. when the Civil War broke out in 1861.  The 6th Massachusetts Infantry was attacked en route to Washington, D.C. by southern-sympathizers, and were in bad shape when they arrived.  Barton heard about their condition and brought supplies from her home to aid them.  This act started a life-long career of aiding people in times of conflict and disaster.      

Barton continued to aid wounded soldiers in Washington, D.C., and established a distribution agency of supplies.  In 1862, she received official permission to transport supplies to battlefields.  Throughout the Civil War, she was at all of the major battles in Maryland, Virginia, and South Carolina, providing supplies to doctors and surgeons, and tending to the wounded and ill too, even though she had no official medical training.  After the end of the war in 1865, Barton helped locate missing soldiers, find and mark thousands of graves, and testified in Congress regarding her experiences during the war. 

In 1869, upon the advice of her doctor, Barton traveled to Europe to regain her health.  While in Switzerland, she learned about the Red Cross organization that was established in Geneva in 1864. 

Upon her return home, Barton focused her attention on educating the public and obtaining support for the creation of an American society of the Red Cross.  She wrote pamphlets, lectured, and met with President Rutherford B. Hayes.  On May 21, 1881, her efforts paid off, and the American Association of the Red Cross was formed; Barton was elected President in June.  Over the years, local chapters were formed throughout the country to help people during times of natural disasters.  In March 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Treaty of Geneva and with the unanimous ratification of the U.S. Senate, the U.S. joined the International Red Cross. 

Barton spent most of the rest of her life leading the Red Cross, lecturing, attending national and international meetings, aiding with disasters, helping the homeless and poor, writing about her life and the Red Cross, and lecturing on women’s rights and suffrage. In 1904 she resigned as President of the American National Red Cross and established the National First Aid Association of America, an organization that emphasized basic first aid and instruction, emergency preparedness, and developed first aid kits.

Barton died in 1912, at the age of 90, at her Glen Echo home in Maryland.  Glen Echo became the Clara Barton National Historic Site in 1975, the first National Historic Site dedicated to the accomplishments of a woman.



Additional Resources:

Web Sites:


  • Alcott, Sarah. Young Clara Barton: Battlefield Nurse. Troll Communications, 1996. [for young children]
  • Marko, Eve. Clara Barton and the American Red Cross. New York: Baronet Books, 1996.
  • Oates, Stephen B. Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War. New York: The Free Press, 1994.
  • Stevenson, Augusta. Clara Barton: Founder of the American Red Cross. New York: Aladdin Paperbacks, 1962.
  • Whitelaw, Nancy. Clara Barton: Civil War Nurse. Enslow Publishers, Inc., 1997


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