Clara Barton: Founder of the American Red Cross
Clarissa Harlowe Barton — Clara, as she wished to be called — is one of the most honored women in American history for being a true pioneer as well as an outstanding humanitarian. As pioneer, she began teaching school at a time when most teachers were men. She was among the first women to gain employment in the federal government. As a pioneer and humanitarian, she risked her life when she was nearly 40 years old to bring supplies and support to soldiers in the field during the Civil War. Then, at age 60, she founded the American Red Cross in 1881 and led it for the next 23 years. Her understanding of the needs of people in distress and the ways in which she could provide help to them guided her throughout her life. By the force of her personal example, she opened paths to the new field of volunteer service. Her intense devotion to the aim of serving others resulted in enough achievements to fill several ordinary lifetimes.
A Brief History of the American Red Cross
Clara Barton and a circle of acquaintances founded the American Red Cross in Washington, D.C. on May 21, 1881. Barton first heard of the Swiss-inspired International Red Cross Movement while visiting Europe following the Civil War. Returning home, she campaigned for an American Red Cross society and for ratification of the Geneva Convention protecting the war-injured, which the United States ratified in 1882.
Barton headed the Red Cross for 23 years, during which time it conducted its first domestic and overseas disaster relief efforts, aided the United States military during the Spanish-American War, and campaigned successfully for the inclusion of peacetime relief work as part of the International Red Cross Movement-the so-called “American Amendment” that initially met with some resistance in Europe.
World War I Accomplishments of the American Red Cross
Europe was thrown into conflict in June 1914. At the beginning of the war, the American Red Cross was a small organization still in the process of developing its identity and programs. When the United States declared war against Germany on April 6, 1917, the organization began a period of extraordinary growth.
Within weeks of the outbreak of war, the American Red Cross dispatched a ship to Europe loaded with medical personnel and supplies. Named the SS Red Cross, it was better known as “the Mercy Ship.” It carried 170 surgeons and nurses who were being sent to Europe to provide medical relief to combat casualties on both sides of the war. This was consistent with the articles of the Geneva Conventions and the principles of the Red Cross Movement that called for strict observation of neutrality and impartiality. Additional personnel and supplies followed but the Red Cross ended this effort after little more than a year, primarily because of lack of sufficient funding.
By the time the war ended in November 1918, the Red Cross had become a major national humanitarian organization with strong leadership, a huge membership base, universal recognition, and a broad and distinguished record of service. Here are some of the highlights of that remarkable period in Red Cross history:
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