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The Life of Clara Barton

Clara Barton was honored with a US postage stamp in 1948.

Clara Barton was a truly remarkable woman. Born on Christmas Day in 1825, she was the youngest of five children. Though she received little formal education, relying on her older sisters to teach her to read, she showed a remarkable intellect. She became a teacher in her home town of Oxford, Massachusetts by age 17. Naturally shy, she nonetheless took on forty young students and met with great success. Her school won awards for its great discipline, and her skills were in such demand that she was able to demand the same pay as male schoolteachers, a watershed at that time.

Barton’s first experience with nursing came at age 11, when she tended to her older brother after he was injured in an accident, but she would not embrace this talent for years. After a decade of teaching, she enrolled in the Liberal Institute of Clinton, New York to learn writing and languages. When her studies were complete, she moved to New Jersey. She soon opened the state’s first free school. Her leadership was exemplary, but the state Board of Education soon hired a man to replace her. Barton moved to Washington D.C., and secured a job as a patent clerk, becoming the first woman to do so.Barton’s work in the government was fraught with difficulties, but the Civil War changed the course of her life. On April 19, 1861, troops from the Sixth Massachusetts arrived in Washington, taking refuge after an attack on them in Baltimore. Springing into action, Clara Barton went to the troops, who were stationed in the capitol building for want of facilities to house them. Barton took the wounded to her sister’s house, where she tended them herself. With that, she invented triage, the process of separating patients by the seriousness of their condition and treating the most afflicted first. This is now a basic tenet of care in hospitals and emergency rooms around the world.

As the war continued, Barton organized donations to the wounded troops. She stirred groups like the Worcester Ladies’ Relief Committee to action and distributed vital supplies sent in from all corners of the union. Barton soon brought her work to the front. She was on hand to help the fallen during battles that claimed thousands of lives, including Bull Run, Antietam, and Fredericksburg. Barton refused salary for her work, and became known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.” When the war drew to an end, Clara Barton found a place treating prisoners of war. She met and supported influential suffragists, but her true calling remained in serving the wounded. At the outbreak of World War I, she traveled to Europe and helped run field hospitals in cities on the front lines. Inspired by her experiences as part of the International Red Cross, which had recently been established, she returned to the States and founded the American Red Cross in 1881. By now, she had become a celebrity, awarded the Prussian Iron Cross, the Cross of Imperial Russia, and more.

Barton served for 23 years as president of the American Red Cross. Under her leadership, the organization helped Americans in times of flood, famine, epidemic fever, and other disasters. By 1898, members of the American Red Cross were dispatched to war for the first time, serving under a flag of neutrality during the Spanish-American conflict. Throughout these challenges, Barton overcame the early problems of poor funding, bureaucracy, and low public trust and formed the American Red Cross into a strong advocate for the victims of war and catastrophe. Clara Barton retired from presidency of the group at the age of 83, and spent her last years peacefully in Glen Echo, Maryland. She died an international heroine, one of the most lauded figures of her era.