Medicine and Disease

Clara Barton

Who was Clara Barton?

The American humanitarian was called “the Angel of the Battlefield” for her work during the Civil War (1861–65). Clara (Clarissa Harlowe) Barton (1821–1912) was a nurse in army camps and on battlefields, where she cared for the wounded. When the fighting ended, Barton formed a bureau to search for missing men. This demanding work left her exhausted. Recuperating in Switzerland in 1869, Barton learned of the newly formed International Red Cross (established 1863). She rallied to the aid of that volunteer organization, tending the needs of those wounded in the fighting of the Franco-Prussian War (1870–71), which German chancellor Otto von Bismarck (1815–1898) had provoked in his attempt to create a unified German empire.

In 1877 Barton began working to form the American Red Cross. Her efforts came to fruition in 1881 with the establishment of the first U.S. branch of the International Red Cross. She became the organization’s first president, a post she held from 1882 to 1904. When Johnstown, Pennsylvania, experienced a devastating flood in 1889, Barton took charge of relief work there. She subsequently advocated a clause be added to the Red Cross constitution, stating that the organization would also provide relief during calamities other than war. She was successful. It is because of Barton that the Red Cross has become a familiar and welcome site in times of disaster.


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