“You must never think of anything except the need, and how to meet it,” are the words of American Red Cross founder Clara Barton, who was born 200 years ago on December 25. Today, they continue to serve as a guiding light for today’s Red Cross volunteers, donors and partners, who exemplify her devotion to helping others.
Clarissa Harlowe Barton, or Clara as she wished to be called, is one of the most honored women in American history. A compassionate and tenacious trailblazer, she believed in serving others and built a legacy of service, innovation and hope when she founded the American Red Cross at age 59 and led the organization for more than 20 years.
EARLY LIFE Born on Christmas Day in 1821, Clara was the fifth child of Stephen and Sarah Barton in North Oxford, Massachusetts. During her early career, she successfully obtained equal pay as in-demand teacher. As she put it then, “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.”
After teaching, Clara moved to Washington, D.C., and worked at the U.S. Patent Office, where she was one of the first women to work for the federal government. Driven by a desire to be useful and help those in need, she sprang into action when the Civil War broke out, earning the nickname “Angel of the Battlefield” for her work to care for soldiers on the front lines. Exhausted after the war ended, she took a doctor’s medical advice to rest in Europe — an experience that led to her establish the American Red Cross.
VOLUNTEERING WITH THE INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS When Clara visited in Geneva, Switzerland, in 1869, she was approached by representatives of the International Red Cross, who asked her to establish a society in the U.S. because of her notable humanitarian work. Founded by Henry Durant, the Red Cross was built on the idea of international agreements to protect the sick and wounded during wartime without respect to nationality, and to form national societies that would provide aid voluntarily on a neutral basis.
While Clara was in Europe, she was able to experience the mission firsthand during the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870. As a volunteer for the International Red Cross, Clara helped distribute relief supplies to war-torn city of Strasbourg and elsewhere in France. She also opened workrooms to help Strasbourg residents make sorely needed clothes and restore their livelihoods.
ESTABLISHING THE AMERICAN RED CROSS Inspired by her experiences in Europe, Barton corresponded with Red Cross officials in Switzerland after her return to the United States. In May 1881, after leading a multi-year effort to gather support in the U.S. and establish the organization primarily with her own money, Clara founded the American Red Cross. The next year in 1882, the U.S. government signed the Treaty of Geneva — international humanitarian laws that, to this day, protect the sick and wounded during wartime and form national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies to deliver neutral aid voluntarily.
Several years later in 1900, the American Red Cross received its first congressional charter. The most recent version of the charter, adopted in May 2007, restates the purpose of the organization, which includes giving relief to and serving as a medium of communication between members of the U.S. armed forces and their families, as well as providing national and international disaster relief and mitigation.
JOIN US TO CONTINUE CLARA’S LEGACY Clara’s vision of preventing and alleviating suffering continues today as ordinary people continue to advance her extraordinary legacy through the American Red Cross, touching millions of lives each year across the globe. Visit redcross.org to get involved by making a financial donation, giving blood, volunteering or learning lifesaving skills.
Learn more about Clara, including this story map of how she helped around the world.