Year of the Nurse: Clara Barton

The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that 2020 is the Year of the Nurse and the Midwife. To celebrate, we’re highlighting individuals that made a major impact on the nursing profession.

Today, we’re telling the story of Clara Barton, a nurse during the Civil War and founder of the American Red Cross.

Read on to learn why Clara Barton is considered one of the most important nurses in American history.

Early Life

Clara Barton was born on December 25, 1821 in Oxford, Massachussetts. She was homeschooled as a child, and began teaching at age 15.

From 1850 to 1852, she attended the Liberal Institute in Clinton, New York, and shortly after established a “free school” in Bordentown, New Jersey. In a matter of years, it had become so large that the men in Bordentown would not allow the school to be run by a woman.

Instead of becoming the subordinate of a man, Barton resigned and took a position at the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C. She was employed there from 1854 to 1857, and again in 1860.

The Civil War

The Civil War began in 1861. From the start, Barton was determined to be involved. At the beginning, Barton prioritizing the health and safety of all American citizens rather than soldiers in the Confederate or Union armies.

She began by organizing facilities to recover lost baggage for soldiers, and locating medicine and assistance for those wounded in battle. She was referred to as the “angel of the battlefield” due to her excellent and compassionate work.

Barton received permission to pass through battle lines to nurse injured soldiers, distribute supplies, and help find the missing.

In 1864, Barton was appointed superintendent of nurses for the Army of the James, a division of the Union Army. In 1865, President Lincoln requested she create an official bureau of records to track and find missing soldiers.

Europe & New Beginnings

Barton briefly moved to Europe to rest after the Civil War, but soon became involved in the Franco-Prussian War.

During this conflict, Barton again provided much-needed assistance. She distributed supplies and nursed the wounded, eventually becoming associated with the International Red Cross.

Barton was inspired by her involvement with the International Red Cross, and began lobbying for an American branch of the organization when she returned to the United States. The American Red Cross Society was founded in 1881, with Barton named as its first president.

Barton served as president of the American National Red Cross until 1904. During her time there, she wrote an important amendment to the organization’s constitution which ordered the distribution of relief during natural disasters in addition to war.

Barton spent much of her adult life working for the Red Cross, helping with fundraising and field work into her 70s.


Clara Barton devoted her life to caring for others, and her work earned her a place in nursing history. She is responsible for founding an organization that provides compassionate care and life-saving assistance for thousands of Americans each year, which now employs over 21,000 people along with 300,000 volunteers.

Barton died at home in Glen Echo, Maryland in 1912. She will forever be known as “the angel of the battlefield” and one of the most important nurses in history.

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