Clara Barton was a pioneering humanitarian who worked as a nurse during the American Civil War and helped to set up the American chapter of the Red Cross. Although she concentrated on humanitarian action rather than politics, she was a supporter of civil rights and female suffrage. Even well into her 80s, Barton remained active in giving practical help to those in distress, whatever their nationality or background. She also founded the American First Aid society.


Clara Barton was born on 25 December 1821 in North Oxford, Massachusetts. Her parents were members of the Unitarian Church had held relatively progressive, liberal views. Clara was taught at a local school and proved an excellent student, though she was personally very shy and struggled with social interaction. When she was ten years old, her brother suffered a nasty head injury after falling from a barn roof. Clara took great interest in nursing her brother and became responsible for looking after his medical treatment. Her brother made a full recovery, even though doctors had doubted he would. Throughout her childhood, she remained quite shy and found that offering assistance to her helping her extended family to be the most effective way of giving her a sense of satisfaction.

Despite her difficulties in social interaction, her parents encouraged her to become a teacher as they felt this would help her gain more confidence. In 1838, at the age of 17, Clara gained her teaching certificate and found that the job of teaching was very rewarding. Inspired by her job, she campaigned to enable education for the children of poor workers. She also demanded equal pay for female teachers at a time of pay disparity.

Barton taught at various schools in Canada and West Georgia for 12 years and she gained a good reputation for her professionalism and ability to mould young children. In 1852, she helped to found a ‘free school’ in Bordentown, the first of its kind in New Jersey. The local city raised money to finance the school, but after a short time, Barton was replaced as principal as the local school governors felt the head teacher should be a man. Her demotion and working in a difficult environment left her physically and emotionally drained and she quit the school to move to Washington D.C.

In 1855, she worked as a clerk in the US Patent Office – it was the first time a woman held such a position and she received the same salary as men. However, the employment of a woman led to criticism from other workers who felt women shouldn’t be allowed to have such a position. As a supporter of civil rights and opposing slavery, under the presidency of James Buchanan in 1856, she was fired from her position  because of her ‘black Republicanism.’ She returned to friends and family in Massachusetts.

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