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USA Science & Engineering Festival – Role Models in Science & Engineering Achievement

Clara Barton

Clara Barton -- Nurse, Humanitarian, Educator

Her work as an independent nurse during the Civil War earned her the title, "Angel of the Battlefield." She later founded the American Red Cross, setting the nation's standard for disaster relief

Born Clarissa Harlow Barton in 1821 in Oxford, Massachusetts, Clara, although excelling in reading and spelling as a young child, was extremely shy, timid and withdrawn. So much in fact that she became depressed and her parents and teachers had to temporarily remove her from school to regain her health. Remarkably, through the help of friends, she was able to transform these drawbacks into a career of helping others -- first as pioneering teacher, and later as a nurse and humanitarian. This, at a time when very few women worked outside the home.

Why She's Important: Clara Barton is best known for serving as an independent nurse on the battlefields of the Civil War, rendering much-needed medical aid to wounded Union soldiers, and for later founding the American Red Cross and serving as its first president. Her contributions to both fields helped set the standard for emergency medical care and disaster relief.

During the Civil War, Clara became driven to help the soldiers in any way she could. At the beginning, she collected and distributed supplies for the Union Army. Not content sitting on the sidelines, she then served as an independent nurse and first saw combat in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1862. She also cared for soldiers wounded at Antietam. For her dedicated work, she was nicknamed the "Angel of the Battlefield."

After the war ended in 1865, Clara worked for the War Department, helping to either reunite missing soldiers and their families or find out more about those who were missing. She also became a lecturer and crowds of people came to hear her talk about her war experiences.

While visiting Europe, she worked with a relief organization known as the International Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–'71. Some time after returning home to the United States, she began to lobby for an American branch of this international organization. The American Red Cross Society was founded in 1881 and Clara served as its first president. As its leader, Clara Barton oversaw assistance and relief work for the victims of such disasters as the 1889 Johnstown Flood and the 1900 Galveston Flood.

Clara Barton resigned from the American Red Cross in 1904 amid an internal power struggle and claims of financial mismanagement. While she was known to be an autocratic leader, she never took a salary for her work within the organization and sometimes used her funds to support relief efforts.

Other Achievements: Earlier in her career, she also earned a reputation as a caring, compassionate teacher. After becoming a teacher at age 15, she opened a free public school in New Jersey. Upon leaving the Red Cross as president, Clara Barton remained active, giving speeches and lectures. She also wrote a book entitled The Story of My Childhood, which was published in 1907. She died at her home in Glen Echo, Maryland, on April 12, 1912.

In Her Own Words: Opinionated, altruistic and with no patience for the status quo, Clara had a way of expressing herself as these two quotes from her illustrate: "I have an almost complete disregard of precedent, and a faith in the possibility of something better. It irritates me to be told how things have always been done. I defy the tyranny of precedent. I go for anything new that might improve the past."

"I may sometimes be willing to teach for nothing, but if paid at all, I shall never do a man's work for less than a man's pay."