The American Red Cross was founded by Clara Barton on this day in history, May 21, 1881.
Nurse Clarissa Harlowe “Clara” Barton was born on Christmas Day, 1821, in North Oxford, Massachusetts, the American Red Cross website notes.
She spent her early career as a teacher before moving to Washington, D.C. to work in the U.S. Patent Office.
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At the time of the American Civil War, Barton shifted her career once again, becoming a battlefield nurse, said the American Red Cross.
Barton worked in this intense form of nursing despite having no formal medical training, says the National Women’s History Museum.
“She bravely provided nursing care and supplies to the soldiers,” said the American Red Cross, “activities that ultimately defined her life and earned her the nickname, Angel of the Battlefield.”
At the conclusion of the Civil War, Barton continued her work with the military, founding the Office of Missing Soldiers, said the site.
Her efforts in this endeavor resulted in more than 20,000 soldiers being reconnected with their families.
But it was not until four years after the American Civil War ended that Barton would discover what would become her life’s work.
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In 1869, she traveled to Switzerland.
There, she learned about “a European humanitarian effort to provide neutral aid to those injured in combat” that was called the “Red Cross movement.”
“Inspired by that cause, Clara volunteered with the International Committee of the Red Cross, providing civilian relief during the Franco-Prussian War,” the American Red Cross website notes.
When she returned to the U.S., Barton started a campaign to create an American organization of the Red Cross, said the National Women’s History Museum.
This involved writing pamphlets, giving lectures and meeting with then-President Rutherford B. Hayes.
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Barton’s work reached a zenith when the American Red Cross was founded on May 21, 1881.
Barton was elected the first president of the American Red Cross.
The following year, the United States ratified the Geneva Convention of 1864, one of the goals of the American Red Cross, according to the National Archives website.
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“Among the points agreed upon by the representatives in attendance [at the Geneva Convention] were aid to the wounded regardless of their nationality, neutrality of medical workers and hospitals and the presence of a uniform flag at medical facilities with a matching arm-badge to be worn by medical personnel,” said the National Archives.
Barton was elected as the first president of the American Red Cross, a position she would hold until her retirement in 1904, said the American Red Cross website.
The still-nascent Red Cross that Barton encountered in Switzerland was founded in Geneva in February 1863, says the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies.
In October 1863, “an international conference was convened, to formalize the concept of national societies,” said the site.
At that conference, the symbol of a red cross on a white background was agreed to be the “standard emblem to identify medical personnel on the battlefield,” said the site.
In 1906, the Ottoman Empire adopted the use of a red crescent in lieu of a cross, said Encyclopedia Britannica.
The “Red Crescent” symbol is still in use today in predominantly Muslim countries.
Today, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement consists of “190 National Societies, the ICRC and the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies,” said the website for the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.
Clara Barton never married and had no children.
She had several nieces and nephews upon whom she “lavished her attention,” according to ClaraBartonBirthplace.org.
Barton loved animals and was taught to ride horses by her older brother, something she enjoyed doing throughout her life, that site says.
Barton died at home in Glen Echo, Maryland, on April 12, 1912, it also notes.
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