Since 1881, American Red Cross members and volunteers have been an essential part of our nation’s response to war, natural disaster and other human suffering. We’ve witnessed great tragedy, but we’ve also seen triumph as people work together to help rebuild lives and communities. Through the timeline below, you can explore some of those key events in Red Cross history.
Clara Barton leads the American Red Cross through its founding and first two decades of service, including the first domestic disaster response, U.S. Senate ratifying the Geneva Convention, and our first international relief efforts.
1820 - 1879
December 25, 1821: Clara Barton is born in New Oxford, Mass.
May 8, 1828: Henry Dunant, founder of Red Cross Movement, is born in Geneva, Switzerland.
June 24, 1859: Battle of Solferino in Northern Italy prompts Henry Dunant to call for an international relief organization to bring aid to the war-injured.
April 20, 1861: Clara Barton, dubbed the "Angel of the Battlefield," begins aid to servicemen in Civil War.
February 9, 1863: International Committee of the Red Cross is founded in Geneva, Switzerland.
April 20, 1865: After the war, Clara Barton was authorized by President Lincoln to open The Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army to identify the fate of missing soldiers for grieving parents, family and friends. In 1867, when Barton closed the office, 63,183 letters had been answered and 22,000 missing men identified.
August 8, 1864: First Geneva Convention issued protecting the war wounded and identifying the red cross on a white field as a neutral protective emblem.
1880 - 1889
May 21, 1881: Clara Barton and associates establish the American Red Cross.
August 22, 1881: First local chapter of the American Red Cross is formed in Dansville, N.Y.
September 4, 1881: Red Cross undertakes its first disaster relief effort aiding victims of Michigan forest fires.
March 16, 1882: After years of relentless efforts by Clara Barton, the U.S. Senate ratifies the Geneva Convention of 1864.
May 31, 1889: Red Cross responds to Johnstown, Pa., flood that kills over 2,000.
August 27, 1893: Clara Barton aids 30,000-mostly African-American-homeless victims of a hurricane on the Sea Islands of South Carolina.
February 15, 1896: Clara Barton and
associates arrive in Constantinople to begin five-month campaign
bringing relief to Armenian victims of Turkish oppression.
June 20, 1898: Clara Barton sails to Havana, Cuba, with supplies for victims of Spanish-American War. First American Red Cross war-related assistance to U.S. military.
The Red Cross expands beyond military support and disaster relief, working to enhance community resilience and help people prepare for emergencies, including our first Federal Charter, Two World Wars, Korea, Vietnam, our first civilian blood collection program, and the launch of training in first aid, water safety and other skills.
September 8, 1900: Clara Barton's last relief operation is on behalf of victims of the devastating hurricane and tidal wave that hit Galveston, Texas.
December 10, 1901 Mabel T. Boardman elected to Red Cross governing board, beginning a lifelong career of organizational leadership, particularly among volunteers.
January 5, 1905: The Red Cross received our first congressional charter in 1900 and a second in 1905, the year after Barton resigned from the organization. The most recent version of thecharter–which was adopted in May, 2007 restates the traditional purposes of the organization which include giving relief to and serving as a medium of communication between members of the American armed forces and their families and providing national and international disaster relief and mitigation.
April 18, 1906: Earthquake and fire ravage San Francisco; President Theodore Roosevelt calls on the Red Cross to lead a major relief effort.
October 9, 1909: Major Charles Lynch appointed director of new Red Cross First Aid Department.
January 20, 1910: First meeting held of the National Committee on Red Cross Nursing Service, chaired by the esteemed director Jane Delano.
November 5, 1910: Pullman Company donates first railroad car to Red Cross for use around the country as a classroom for first aid instruction.
December 15, 1910: Thomas A. Edison Company releases "The Red Cross Seal," the first in a series of public health films about the ravages of tuberculosis and Red Cross efforts to prevent its spread.
March 25, 1911: Red Cross helps families of mostly young women who are victims of tragic Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City.
February 6, 1912: Red Cross approves creation of a Rural Nursing Program.
April 12, 1912: Clara Barton dies at age 90 in her home in Glen Echo, Md., eight years after her resignation from the Red Cross.
April 14, 1912: Red Cross comes to aid of those who survived the sinking of the Titanic.
March 19, 1913: President Woodrow Wilson named first honorary president of American Red Cross, establishing a precedent for all chief executives who have followed.
February 1, 1914: Commodore Wilbert E. Longfellow, known as the "Amiable Whale," begins Red Cross Water Safety program.
September 12, 1914 Red Cross "Mercy Ship" sails to Europe with medical staff and supplies following outbreak of World War I.
July 24, 1915: S.S. Eastland, with 2,000 summer holiday-makers aboard, capsizes in the Chicago River, causing over 800 deaths. Red Cross relief is immediate.
June 27, 1916: Home Service for the military begins its work with help to U.S. troops along Mexican border of the during a series of raids on civilian towns.
May 10, 1917: President Woodrow Wilson appoints a War Council to guide operations of the Red Cross during World War I.
May 12, 1917: Red Cross dedicates its headquarters building in Washington, D.C., as a memorial to "the heroic women of the Civil War," both North and South.
May 25, 1917: Red Cross starts service to blinded war veterans in Baltimore, Md.
June 2, 1917: Red Cross Commission to Europe sets sail to alleviate wartime suffering.
June 17, 1917: Red Cross holds first War Fund drive, surpassing a goal of raising $100 million in one week.
August 30, 1917: Red Cross starts its Canteen Service to provide refreshments to the military.
September 15, 1917: President Woodrow Wilson calls on youth to join the newly formed Junior Red Cross.
April 22, 1918: Red Cross introduces medical social work in servicemen's hospitals.
June 5, 1918: Red Cross begins Nurses' Aide program to make up for nurse shortages during wartime.
July 2, 1918: Frances Reed Elliott is enrolled as the first African-American in the Red Cross Nursing Service.
January 27, 1919: Red Cross reports 204 of its nurses have died combating worldwide Spanish influenza pandemic. Red Cross recruited a total of 15,000 women, including regularly enrolled nurses to respond to the deadly outbreak.
May 5, 1919: League of Red Cross Societies (now the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) is formed in Paris, France.
May 17, 1919: Red Cross National Children's Fund is set up to aid youth in postwar Europe.
September 1, 1923: Red Cross aids thousands of earthquake and fire victims in Tokyo and Yokohama, Japan.
April 21, 1927: After weeks of heavy rainfall, a major levee breaks along the Mississippi River beginning a flood that would cover 27,000 square miles. Red Cross spends months aiding the victims.
March 7, 1932: Red Cross begins distribution of government surplus wheat and cotton products to victims of drought in the Dust Bowl, which covered more than five states including Colorado, New Mexico, Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
May 15, 1940: Early blood processing program for relief of English war victims, called Plasma for Britain, begins under direction of Dr. Charles R. Drew
February 4, 1941: Red Cross begins National Blood Donor Service to collect blood for the U.S. military with Dr. Charles R. Drew, formerly of the Plasma for Britain program, as medical director.
June 1, 1941: Red Cross services to military unified as "Services to Armed Forces" (SAF).
November 3, 1941: Irving Berlin's "Angels of Mercy" becomes official Red Cross wartime song.
December 7, 1941: Moments after attack on Pearl Harbor, Red Cross volunteers go into action.
July 15, 1942: Red Cross convenes meeting with black leaders to encourage minority participation in organization.
October 26, 1942: World War II Clubmobiles begin service in England.
November 9, 1942: Red Cross establishes a membership plan for units in U.S. colleges.
November 11, 1942: American Red Cross opens famous Rainbow Corner Club in London for servicemen.
November 28, 1942: Red Cross responds to fire at Cocoanut Grove nightclub in Boston, Mass., that claims 494 lives.
May 1, 1943: Jesse Thomas is the first African-American to join the American Red Cross executive staff.
March 20, 1945: President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's last radio talk to nation is in support of the Red Cross War Fund.
August 18, 1945: Red Cross ends its World War II blood program for the military after collecting more than 13 million pints.
August 29, 1945: First Red Cross field director arrives in Japan after World War II to help rebuild Japanese Red Cross.
June 8, 1947: In an effort to include more representation from the local chapters, the Board of Governors replaces Central Committee as Red Cross governing body.
January 12, 1948: Red Cross begins its National Blood Program for civilians by opening its first collection center in Rochester, NY. By the end of 1949, we will open 31 American Red Cross Regional Blood Centers.
October 1, 1949: George C. Marshall, World War II hero and creator of the "Marshall Plan" to help Europe recover from war, becomes Red Cross president.
July 22, 1950: Red Cross becomes blood collection agency for military during Korean War.
August 5, 1953: Red Cross aids Operation Big Switch exchange of POWs at end of Korea War hostilities.
October 1, 1953: Janet Wilson becomes first National Director of new Office of Volunteers that brings workers together from different services under "one Red Cross."
April 4, 1955: The Red Cross liberalizes fundraising policy to allow chapters to participate in federated campaigns, such as the Community Chest, a forerunner of the United Way.
July 14, 1955: United States ratifies the Geneva Conventions of 1949 that still apply today.
December 5, 1962: Red Cross begins collecting medicines and food for Cuba in exchange for release of Bay of Pigs POWs.
March 27, 1964: Red Cross aids victims of massive earthquake that hits Anchorage, Alaska.
October 8, 1965: Red Cross Movement adopts its Seven Fundamental Principles: Humanity, Impartiality, Neutrality, Independence, Voluntary Service, Unity and Universality.
October 30, 1967: Board of Governors receives report that National Headquarters will host a national Rare Blood Donor Registry for blood types occurring less than once in 200 people.
August 17, 1969: Red Cross aids those affected by Hurricane Camille.
February 14, 1972: Red Cross calls for national blood policy, which the federal government sets up in 1974, supporting standardized practices and an end to paid donations.
June 14, 1972: Red Cross responds as Hurricane Agnes slams eastern United States.
April 29, 1975: Red Cross begins four-month Operation New Life for Vietnam refugees brought to the United States.
February 25, 1977: President Jimmy Carter makes his 51st blood donation in bloodmobile at the White House.
January 13, 1983: United States blood banking groups issue their first warning about Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).
October 21, 1983: Board of Governors approves expansion of Red Cross bone marrow program that leads to stem cell collection and distribution.
March 1, 1985: Immediately after the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) licenses the first test to detect the antibody to HIV on March 3rd, Red Cross Blood Services regions begin testing all newly donated blood.
February 23, 1987: Red Cross opens its Holland Laboratory dedicated to biomedical research.
September 10, 1989: Red Cross begins relief efforts for victims of Hurricane Hugo.
October 17, 1989: Red Cross aids 14,000 families affected by the Loma Prieta earthquake in Northern California.
August 7, 1990: Five days after the launch of Operation Desert Shield/Storm, American Red Cross workers arrive in the Persian Gulf region. Over the next year, 158 Red Cross staffers will live and work with the troops. Seven will receive the Bronze Star for meritorious service.
September 24, 1990: Red Cross Holocaust and War Victims Tracing & Information Center opens in Baltimore, Md.
February 4, 1991: Elizabeth Dole becomes first woman president of the Red Cross since Clara Barton.
August 3, 1992: First National Testing Laboratory, applying standardized tests to ensure the safety of Red Cross blood products, opens in Dedham, MA. This includes testing of donor blood for HIV-1 and HIV-2 antibodies (anti-HIV-1 and anti-HIV-2).
August 24, 1992: Hurricane Andrew blasts Florida and leads to multi-year Red Cross aid.
August 1, 1993: Record crest of Mississippi River occurs at St. Louis in worst Midwest flooding to date. More than 14,500 people take refuge at 148 Red Cross shelters in 10 states.
April 19, 1995: Red Cross aids victims of the Federal Building bombing in Oklahoma City.
October 9, 1996: Spurred by the disaster that befell TWA Flight 800 on July 17, 1996, Congress passes Aviation Disaster Act that leads to creation of Red Cross Aviation Incident Response (AIR) teams to assist victim families.
May 6, 1998: Red Cross creates post of Chief Diversity Officer to lead effort to ensure an inclusive work environment and responsiveness to the needs of culturally diverse communities.
November 16, 1998: Red Cross opens an Armed Forces Emergency Services (AFES) Center with hi-tech emergency communications service for military.
March 1, 1999: Red Cross initiates Nucleic Acid Testing (NAT), which provides early detection of HIV and Hepatitis C in blood.
Approaching its 140th year of service, the Red Cross continues to bring hope to people in their time of need, including domestic disaster responses including the September 11 terrorist attack, ongoing support for America’s military families, and our international campaign to combat measles.
2000 - 2009
September 11, 2001: Red Cross responds to terrorist attacks in New York, at the Pentagon and outside the town of Shanksville in rural Pennsylvania.
October 3, 2001: Red Cross establishes the Liberty Fund for September 11th terrorism victims and their families. Controversy over the original intent of the fund later leads to the establishment of the Donor Direct fund raising policy, which stands for D(onor) I(ntent) RE(cognition), C(onfirmation) and T(rust).
December 25, 2001: Red Cross staff members begin serving U.S. troops in Afghanistan. Additional staff will operate from bases in Balad, Baghdad, Tikrit and Kuwait throughout the war in Iraq.
February 7, 2002: Red Cross joins other groups to launch Measles Initiative, five-year plan to eradicate the disease in sub-Saharan Africa by immunizing children.
August 13, 2004: Hurricane Charley slams into Florida's Gulf Coast. It is followed by a succession of hurricanes-Frances, Ivan and Jeanne-that call for a combined response that is the largest in Red Cross history up to that point.
December 26, 2004: Magnitude 9.0 earthquake off west coast of Indonesia triggers massive tsunami that brings death and destruction to 12 countries. American Red Cross joins international relief effort.
August 25 - 29, 2005: Hurricane Katrina becomes one of the most destructive storms in the history of the Gulf Coast, killing nearly 2,000 and leaving millions homeless. Red Cross mobilizes its largest, single disaster relief effort to date. Two subsequent hurricanes of significant strength hit, Rita and Wilma, compounding the devastation and impacting relief operations.
May 1, 2006: The American Red Cross commemorates 125 years of service both national and international.
June 21, 2006: International Federation of Red Cross and Red
Crescent Societies officially admit the Magen David Adom (MDA) and the
Palestine Red Crescent Society to the Red Cross Movement as a result of
American Red Cross advocacy to find a solution to their decades-long
2010 - 2019
January 1, 2010: A magnitude 7.0 earthquake hits Haiti, leaving 1.5 million people homeless and prompting one of the largest single-country responses in the history of the global Red Cross and Red Crescent network. The public generously donates in support of the relief efforts, including donating via text messages on mobile phone, leading to a groundbreaking $32 million raised via SMS.
May 31, 2012: The Red Cross launches our first smartphone app. Designed to help people learn and practice First Aid in emergency situations, the app will be downloaded more than one million times in the next 18 months.
July 28, 2012: The Red Cross launches a Hurricane smartphone app to help people prepare for, stay safe during, and recover from hurricanes; the app will be downloaded more than one million times in the next 3 years.
October 29, 2012: Superstorm Sandy makes
landfall in New Jersey. 17,000 Red Cross workers participated in the
massive emergency response effort across multiple states.
February 19, 2013: The Red Cross launches a Tornado smartphone app to help people prepare for, stay safe during, and recover from tornados; the app will be downloaded more than one million times in the next 2 years.
November 8, 2013: Typhoon Haiyan, the strongest storm ever recorded in the Philippines, claims more than 6,000 lives. With American Red Cross support, more than 3,200 families receive new homes while 6,600 others receive cash, materials, and technical support to rebuild existing houses to better withstand future disasters.
January 16, 2014: The Red Cross launches a Pet First Aid smartphone app to enable pet owners to provide basic emergency care.
May 20, 2014: To mark its 100 years of
swimming safety education, the Red Cross launched the Centennial
Initiative, a national campaign to reduce the drowning rate by 50
percent in 50 cities over three to five years.
September 29, 2014: The Red Cross launches a smartphone app for blood donors; the app will reach one million downloads in April 2017.
October 7, 2014: The Red Cross launches its Home Fire Campaign, a national campaign to reduce deaths and injuries from home fires by as much as 25 percent over five years.
March 18, 2015: The Red Cross has raised $7.6 million to help people in West African countries affected by the Ebola outbreak.
April 16, 2015: The Red Cross launches Emergency smartphone app covering many common natural disasters and emergencies.
April 25, 2015: A 7.8 magnitude earthquake shakes Nepal, taking nearly 9,000 lives. The American Red Cross helps fund critical emergency relief efforts and raises $39.9 million to help Nepalese families and individuals rebuild their homes, communities and livelihoods.
September 13, 2016: The Red Cross launches Hero Care, a smartphone app for military members, veterans and military families.
October 17, 2016: The Red Cross announces that the Home Fire Campaign has saved at least 111 lives and installed more than 500,000 smoke alarms during its first two years.
August 25, 2017: The Red Cross undertakes massive relief efforts to help victims of Hurricane Harvey
September 19, 2017: For several weeks, thousands of Red Cross disaster workers help people impacted by Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, which devastates parts of Texas, Louisiana, Florida, Georgia, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The Red Cross also prepares to respond to Hurricane Maria as it approaches Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
October 27, 2017: After devastating wildfires begin in northern California, the Red Cross assists communities to recover, making sure people receive the help they need while providing a shoulder to lean on as they cope with the aftermath of these deadly fires.
November 16, 2018: The Red Cross helps bring relief and comfort to thousands of people dealing with the devastation left behind by raging wildfires in both the northern and southern parts of California.
April 24, 2019: More than 550 lives saved - and counting! Since launching in October 2014, the Home Fire Campaign has helped save 582 lives. Across the country, Red Cross volunteers and community partners have installed more than 1.6 million free smoke alarms, reached more than 1.3 million children through youth preparedness programs, and made more than 684,000 households safer from the threat of home fires. Also see October 17, 2016 and October 7, 2014.
September 1, 2019: Hurricane Dorian makes landfall in the Bahamas as a Category 5 hurricane, taking lives and displacing tens of thousands. The Red Cross provides $16.6 million in assistance and working with partner organizations supply nearly 575,000 meals to people across the islands.
December 28, 2019: Puerto Rico is struck by an earthquake swarm, including 11 magnitude 5 or higher. The Red Cross spends 6 weeks in immediate response operations, serving more than 2,000 households.
2020 - Present
March 2020: Food and Drug Administration, Red Cross and industry partners establish a process to safely collect convalescent plasma from recovered COVID-19 individuals for treatment of serious COVID-19 infections.
March 2, 2020: Overnight, 14 tornadoes touch down across Nashville, TN causing dozens of deaths and injuring more than 300. The American Red Cross responds with shelters, emergency supplies, food, and mental health support.
April 27, 2020: The Red Cross begins testing convalescent plasma from eligible donors for COVID-19 antibodies. The automated test simplifies the eligibility process and increases the potential donor pool.
May 2020: Starting with Tropical Storm Arthur and going to Hurricane Iota, the 2020 hurricane season is the most active hurricane season on record, with a record-breaking 30 named storms overall and 12 of them making landfall in the US.
August 10, 2020: A derecho hits Iowa and Illinois with winds up to 140 MPH, causing nearly 600,000 people to lose power. The Red Cross provides shelter, casework, shelter resident transition assistance, and distributes emergency supplies and food.
July 24– December 12, 2020: Dozens of wildfires rage simultaneously in California, Oregon, and Washington, consuming millions of acres and forcing tens of thousands of people to evacuate. The Red Cross provides more than 400,000 overnight stays, over 901,000 meals, and 56,500 relief items.
August 27–October 28, 2020: Hurricane Laura makes landfall in Louisiana, Hurricane Sally hits Alabama and Florida with heavy rainfall. Six weeks later Hurricane Delta makes landfall on the gulf, followed by Hurricane Zeta impacting Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Northern Florida. Over the course of multiple storms the Red Cross, working with partners, helps residents recover, providing over 1.9 million meals and snacks, some 231,000 relief items and cleaning supplies, and over 55,000 care contacts.