Influential People in Nursing: Clara Barton


Clarissa Harlowe Barton, otherwise known as Clara Barton, is considered one of America’s treasured humanitarians. Barton was the first female nurse given permission to access the battle field and provide supplies and medical care to those who were wounded during the Civil War’s Battle of the Bull. She was considered the angel of the battle field for her heroic efforts in nursing while dodging bullets on the battle field as a volunteer. After the Civil War, Clara Barton was sought out by the International Red Cross and founded the American Red Cross. Throughout her life, Clara was a pioneer for not just the nursing industry but also for women. She crossed many barriers and made it possible for women to enter fields where they were never before accepted.

Clara Barton was the youngest of five children born to her parents, Stephen and Sarah Barton. She started out as a teacher at the suggestion of a family friend, who advised Clara that this would cure her shyness. She taught school for ten years at a local schoolhouse in a small Massachusetts’s town after which she was invited to become a teacher at a private school in Bordentown, New Jersey. Barton saw the desperate need for free education so she helped establish one of the first free public schools in Massachusetts. Shortly after, the school appointed a male principal to replace Barton; she resigned her position and moved to Washington, DC, where she was the first woman to work in the U.S. Patent office. Despite being replaced by a higher paid, male principal at the school she helped establish, Barton was paid the same salary as her male counterparts at the U.S. Patent Office. This was very rare during this time period of American history.

The Many Sides of Clara Barton

Clara Barton had her first experience as a nurse when she insisted on attending to her brother during his childhood illness. Although Clara was at least ten years younger than all of her siblings, she learned to administer his medication and even take on the responsibility of administering the dreadful leaches. Clara honed her compassion and humanitarian skills working as a teacher. She won numerous medals and awards for her humanitarian efforts in nursing and with the Red Cross.

American Civil War Nurse

Clara Barton began her battle field nursing two days after the Culpepper battle. She had been in Washington DC as the soldiers flowed in from the Fort Sumter battle; Clara found out how quickly she could rally supplies and help to feed and nurse the men coming from the battle field. She was the first woman to gain a quartermaster’s pass to enter the battlefield. She was able to summon six wagons full of supplies and a couple of helpers to take to the battlefield at Culpepper. On the war fields, Clara Barton was known as “the angel of the battlefield”. She fed and nursed the wounds of the soldiers for two nights and two days with no food or sleep herself. This was when she found her true calling. Other important nurses worked alongside Clara Barton. Some of these great ladies included Sally Louisa Tomkins, Mary Livermore and Dorthea Dix. These women volunteered their services and did not collect a salary for the work they did during this time.

American Red Cross Founder

After the war Clara began a lecture tour speaking about work and the incidents of army life. She soon became interested in the women’s suffrage movement after meeting Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Staton at a train station. Speaking engagements often included support of the suffrage movement. She was well respected on the lecture circuit. Beginning in 1870, however, her heart and majority of her time was dedicated to the Red Cross. While vacationing in Europe she encountered the Franco-Prussian war and quickly found herself back on the battlefield helping wounded soldiers. The next two decades were spent working diligently with the International Red Cross in disaster relief as well as war time assistance. In 1881 Barton along with other Red Cross supporters formed the American Association of the Red Cross as a corporation from District of Columbia and the Red Cross flag was flown in the U.S. for the first time. In 1893 the Red Cross was formally re-named The American National Red Cross. In the following years Barton continued to receive countless awards and decorations for international aid as well as disaster relief. Barton retired from the Red Cross in 1904 because of political pressures and mounting criticism. She wrote several accounts of the beginning of The Red Cross and as a legacy donated many of her manuscripts to the Library of Congress.

Clara Barton National Historic Site

Clara Barton lived the last fifteen years of her life in Glen Echo, Maryland. She spent this time in a Victorian style house built by her brothers. It was at this house that she incorporated the first Red Cross headquarters and house relief workers. Along with assisting the Red Cross, Clara Barton also spent these final years writing her autobiography and several other works. Her house has now been incorporated as a national historical site.

Clara Barton Birthplace Museum

Clara Barton was born on December 25, 1821 in the farming community of Oxford, Massachusetts. Her birthplace has been honored as a historical site and features a Clara Barton museum. This museum offers a detailed look into the life of Clara Barton and her many accomplishments. Now the Barton Center for Diabetes Education operates on the site and runs the birthplace and museum.

Clara Barton was instrumental in the formation of nursing. She was not only a pioneer for her time but also a prominent figure in helping the injured and needy. Clara Barton, as well as other well known figures that helped shape nursing as we know it today, is celebrated during National Nurses Week. National Nurses Week is observed annually from May 6, also known as National Nurses Day, thorough May 12.