Just as so many American families celebrate dates of significance at this time of year, so too does the Red Cross family. On Dec. 25, 1821, Clara Barton (born Clarissa Harlowe Barton), the founder of the American Red Cross, was born in North Oxford, Massachusetts. Barton’s lifelong humanitarian efforts have been inherited by the organization she created well over a century ago.
Barton began her career in the mid-1800s as a schoolteacher when the majority of school teachers were male. She went on to work at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington D.C. as one of the first females to be employed by the federal government. While working in this role, Barton witnessed the harsh realities of life for soldiers as the Civil War broke out around her. This began a personal crusade for Barton, and a larger one that lives on today through the American Red Cross.
Barton’s humanitarian work began with her providing food and supplies to injured soldiers of the Sixth Massachusetts Infantry. Recognizing some of the young soldiers as former students and childhood neighbors, their condition touched her personally and the experience inspired her to do more. She pushed to be allowed to offer support on the front lines. Barton became known to Union and Confederate soldiers alike as the “Angel of the Battlefield.” As the war drew to a close, Barton’s focus shifted from providing for soldiers’ physical needs to providing for their emotional care. She established the Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army, an organization that worked to reconnect or provide closure for tens of thousands of families of missing soldiers.
Barton traveled to Europe in 1869, and it was there, in Geneva, Switzerland, that she was introduced to the mission of the Red Cross. Barton’s own work with the International Red Cross began in 1870 when she joined the ranks treating soldiers of the Franco-Prussian War. She was inspired by global Red Cross founder Henry Dunant, who urged for international agreements to treat the sick and wounded during wartime, regardless of nationality or affiliation. Dunant’s ideas led to the first Geneva Treaty in 1864, which was ratified by twelve European nations. Barton fought to have the United States ratify the agreement, which it did in 1882.
In addition to bringing the United States into the Geneva Treaty, Barton brought the Red Cross to the United States and acted as its first President. With the Civil War behind and World Wars not yet begun, the efforts of the American Red Cross in its early years were primarily focused on providing disaster relief. Early missions included aiding survivors of a Michigan wildfire in 1881, a Pennsylvania dam failure in 1884, and a South Carolina hurricane in 1893. When Barton resigned in 1904 from the position she held as President for 23 years, she created the National First Aid Association of America, which provided emergency preparation and first aid instruction. While Clara Barton died in 1912, she left a legacy of programs she created: to aid disaster victims; to educate the public on life-saving skills and emergency preparation; to improve the lives of armed service members and their families; and to reconnect family members live on in the Red Cross. Although she had no children of her own, Barton brought the American Red Cross to life, and her ideals and sense of purpose continue to course through the veins of the organization today.
Happy 196th Birthday, Clara Barton, from your Red Cross family and all of those whose lives you have touched. To read more about the life and work of Clara Barton, visit Founder Clara Barton.