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Clara Barton, a fearless humanitarian who helped revolutionize battlefield medicine, is celebrated for her lifelong dedication to helping others. She was a teacher, a nurse, an abolitionist, and a campaigner for women’s rights. And though it’s been more than 200 years since her birth on Christmas day, 1821, she remains one of the most honored women in American history.

When Barton died in 1912 at the age of 91, the New York Times wrote, “She was a woman of remarkable executive skill, of unbounded enthusiasm, inspired by humane ideas…. Her name became a household word, associated in the public mind with goodness and mercy.”

Explore 7 extraordinary facts about this remarkable woman.

1. She was painfully shy.

Barton was so shy as a child that her mother consulted L.N. Fowler, a noted phrenologist, to examine her skull and offer advice. He recommended Clara teach, a career that employed relatively few women at the time. Undaunted, Barton listened and became a teacher in her hometown of North Oxford, Massachusetts, at the age of 17. She encouraged her students without harsh discipline and was praised for it. 

“Child that I was, I did not know that the surest test of discipline is its absence,” she later wrote. “Her compassion for others and her willingness to help them always won out over her shyness,” said David Price, Executive Director of the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum in Washington, D.C.

2. She opened one of the first free public schools in New Jersey.

While visiting a friend in Bordentown, New Jersey, in 1852, Barton found many poor, school-age boys on the streets. Determined to help them, she received permission to start a free public school, the first in Bordentown. By the end of the year, the school had grown from six students to several hundred. But when the school proved a success, the board hired a male principal to run it at twice Barton’s salary. Barton left in protest. 

She later said, “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.”

Clarissa Harlowe 'Clara' Barton (1821-1912) was a pioneer American teacher, patent clerk, nurse, and humanitarian.

Clarissa Harlowe 'Clara' Barton (1821-1912) was a pioneer American teacher, patent clerk, nurse, and humanitarian.

3. As one of the first women to work for the federal government, she fought for equal pay.

Barton moved to Washington, D.C., in 1854, and became a copyist for the U.S. Patent Office. Within a year, she was promoted to clerk, making her the first woman to receive a government appointment. She successfully lobbied to earn the same $1,400 salary as her male peers, many of whom resented women in the workplace. Her raise didn’t last long. A new boss demoted her to a copyist, earning 10 cents for every 100 words.

4. Her work as a Civil War nurse and relief worker began with the Baltimore Riot.

On April 19, 1861, just weeks after the Civil War erupted, Confederate sympathizers attacked Massachusetts soldiers traveling through Baltimore, Maryland, killing four. The injured were taken to the unfinished U.S. Capitol building, close to where Barton worked at the U.S. Patent Office. 

Barton rushed to help the wounded and was shocked to discover that some of the men were her former students. “They were faithful to me in their boyhood, and in their manhood faithful to their country,” she said. 

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She quickly gathered food, medicine, and clothing from her own home and helped care for them. It was the beginning of Barton’s Civil War nursing career, which earned her the name, “Angel of the Battlefield.”

Illustration of Clara Barton bringing relief to the battlefield.

Illustration of Clara Barton bringing relief to the battlefield.

5. Barton was almost killed at the Battle of Antietam.

As Barton cradled the head of a wounded soldier at Antietam, a bullet passed through the sleeve of her dress and into her patient. 

“A ball has passed between my body and the right arm which supported him, cutting through his chest from shoulder to shoulder. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to his rest,” Barton wrote. “I have never mended that hole in my sleeve.

6. She founded the Missing Soldiers Office.

At the end of the Civil War, tens of thousands of men were missing. With Lincoln’s approval, Barton founded the Missing Soldiers Office to help families locate their loved ones. Of the 63,000 requests she and her small team received, they located 22,000 men, some of whom were still alive. 

Barton was a woman who lived by her words, “You must never think of anything except the need, and how to meet it.”

Clara Barton

Portrait of Clara Barton, c. 1904

7. Barton's work convinced the International Red Cross to expand its role to include peacetime disaster relief.

After witnessing and joining the efforts of the International Red Cross in Europe to help victims of war, Barton founded the American Red Cross in 1881. She led several relief efforts, including those of the Mississippi River and Ohio River floods. Her innovative work not only helped many Americans. It convinced the International Red Cross to expand its mission to include helping those affected by natural disasters. 

Price said, “The only reason we have a Red Cross today that responds to natural disasters and emergencies is because of this lady and her determination to help her fellow man.”

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