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Top Nurses in History: Clara Barton

Clara Barton's most notable achievement was organizing the American Red Cross. However, she was also an accomplished patent clerk, humanitarian and nurse.

Clarissa Harlowe "Clara" Barton was the youngest of five children born to Stephen and Sarah Barton in Oxford, Massachusetts, on December 25, 1821. Her unofficial start as a nurse began at age 11, when her brother David was injured from a fall in the family's unfinished barn. For the next three years, Barton learned to administer all of David's medication and care, including the use of leeches.

If treating her brother sparked an interest in nursing, Barton most certainly drew inspiration from stories of her great-aunt, Martha Ballard. Ballard was a midwife for over three decades, helping deliver nearly a thousand infants, as well as administering medical care. Later, Barton's father would give her advice on his death bed to "seek and comfort the afflicted everywhere."

Barton was also the first woman clerk to work in the U.S. Patent Office with a salary equal to a man's. Political opposition to women working in government offices led to her position being reduced and ultimately eliminated under the administration of James Buchanan. Hoping to pave the way for future women working in government offices, Barton returned to work at the patent office after the election of Abraham Lincoln.

American Civil War

Barton found herself tending to wounded Massachusetts soldiers just nine days after the start of the Civil War. In 1861, following the First Battle of Bull Run, she established an agency to distribute supplies to wounded soldiers. Barton rode in army ambulances to help nurse soldiers back to health, all the while lobbying the U.S. Army to bring her nursing capabilities to the front lines.

On August 3, 1862, Barton got permission to travel and would reach some of the direst battlefields of the war. While nursing a soldier, a bullet grazed her sleeve and ultimately killed the man she was tending to while herself escaping without injury. Barton was appointed as "lady in charge" of the hospitals by Union General Benjamin Butler.  

Barton was put in charge of the search for the missing men of the Union Army in 1865 by President Abraham Lincoln. At the same time she encountered a young soldier, Dorence Atwater, who copied the list of the dead, in fear that the names would never reach the families. At the end of the war, Atwater and Barton traveled to Andersonville, publishing the names for the public to see. Barton would make it a nationwide campaign to identify all missing soldiers of the Civil War. Lists were published in newspapers, and Barton exchanged letters with the families of many soldiers.

American Red Cross

Lectures about Barton’s war experiences gave her widespread recognition and the opportunity to work with the likes of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass. A trip to Geneva, Switzerland introduced Barton to the Red Cross and the idea of national societies being formed to provide relief on a neutral, voluntary basis.

Upon return to the United States, Barton worked to gain recognition for the International Committee of the Red Cross by the U.S. government. Her effort was a long journey that began in 1873 and ultimately came to fruition in 1881. Barton was then named president of the American branch of the Red Cross.

Barton would not slow down in her later years either. In response to the Hamidian Massacres in the Ottoman Empire, Barton opened the first American International Red Cross headquarters in Turkey, after long negotiations with Abdul Hamid II. Barton and five others traveled to the region to provide humanitarian aid in 1896.

Relief efforts for victims of the killer Galveston hurricane in 1900 was Barton's last field operation as president of the American Red Cross. She would help establish an orphanage for children, team up with New York World newspaper to accept contributions, and acquire lumber to assist in the rebuilding of Galveston Island.

At age 83, Barton resigned as president of the American Red Cross – the result of criticism and advancing age. Clara Barton passed away on April 12, 1912 at the age of 90 in Glen Echo, Maryland surrounded by her friends.