Nursing as a profession is awash with influential individuals who made significant contributions and shaped the core principles and practices of the modern era. However, few of them are as influential as Clara Barton; an educationist who switched careers to join nursing at the height of the American Civil War. Barton, a reputable humanitarian in her own respect, nursed and cared for injured soldiers in addition to overseeing the distribution of medical supplies to the wounded at the warfront despite lacking any formal training in nursing. Her commitment to humanitarian aid changed the course of history not only for nursing as a profession but also the history of the United States in general on the global front.
Born Clarissa Harlowe Barton, Clara’s firsthand experience with caregiving came at an early age when she was barely a teenager. When her older brother suffered a serious head injury, Clara Barton took on a role that she had no formal training on. Driven by compassion and love for caregiving, she nursed her brother to full recovery despite her young age and lack of experience. Despite later joining the education sector as a pioneer educator who founded a successful school for free children and joining the federal government at Washington, DC as a patent clerk and later as a copyist, the outbreak of the American Civil War reignited her childhood passion for nursing and caregiving. Her heroics, which included overseeing the supplies of much-needed medical aid to wounded Union soldiers and devising of nursing and caregiving protocols for the wounded, earned her the symbolic nickname “Angel of the Battlefield” (Harper, 2003; Michals, 2015).
In addition to serving as a relief organizer on the battlefield and improving caregiving protocols at the warfront, she also served with compassion as a volunteer nurse who comforted the wounded soldiers. She also cooked for the wounded soldiers as she nursed them. This helped her gain trust of the soldiers and authorities, which saw her promoted to the position of superintendent nurse despite lacking any formal nursing education (Harper, 2003; Michals, 2015).
Clara Barton’s contribution to humanitarian work is not confined to the battlefront. Her unflinching and fearless dedication to the cause of humanity saw her establish the American Red Cross; an organization dedicated to offering the much-needed humanitarian aid including food relief and medical services during crises such as natural disasters and wars. For over two decades, she served as the president of the organization and oversaw its rapid growth throughout the country and expansion to overseas territories such as Cuba, the former Ottoman Empire, and Armenia. Through the organization, Clara Barton improved access to medical care to vulnerable communities and populations such as women and children especially during crises and wars that blighted the global communities (Harper, 2003; Michals, 2015).
To improve medical care in the community further, Clara Barton played a vital role in the founding of National First Aid Society. As a pioneer of provision of first aid services in the local communities and nationally, she guided the organization’s efforts towards development of first aid kits. She also played a vital role in the organization’s first aid classes and training, which fundamentally changed the course of the country’s medical care provision landscape especially during emergencies. Through the organization, which she founded after stepping down from the presidency of American Red Cross, Clara Barton played a vital role in the dissemination of first aid care to the masses throughout various communities (Harper, 2003; Michals, 2015).
Despite working as a volunteer nurse with no pay, Clara Barton was a fierce supporter of women suffrage, especially equal pay for both men and women. When she felt maligned and demeaned by the management of the school she opened and successfully managed for years, she quit the industry and joined the federal government as a patent clerk. The school’s management opted to hire a man to manage the school on a higher salary. In Washington, DC, she pushed for equality between male and female employees in the same positions (Harper, 2003; Michals, 2015).
Clara Barton championed for increased access to medical care. This issue is relevant today and championed for through legislation and organizations such as American Red Cross and National First Aid Society, which she founded. The organizations that she played a vital role in founding have been vital in increasing access to medical care not only in the country during crises and natural disasters such as hurricanes but also overseas during wars and natural disasters. They have put the country on humanitarian aid map as the leading provider of humanitarian services globally. Increased access to medical services is also achieved via volunteerism by medical care service providers such as nurses and doctors; an act of compassion that Clara Barton popularized by volunteering during the American Civil War. She also pushed for better protocols for care giving protocols, which is an important component of caregiving and quality medical care provision.
Her push for women suffrage is a relevant struggle today. She was a strong believer in equal pay for equal work done; an ideology that is important in all professions including nursing. Women suffrage is a problem that has continued in many societies and professions not only in the U.S. but also overseas. Clara Barton, as a believer in equal rights, resigned from a school she founded when she was demeaned. She took the fight to Washington, DC where she worked as a patent clerk and copyist and was paid the same salary as her male counterparts.
Clara Barton transformed more than the nursing profession. Her contributions to nursing and women rights transformed other professions and the history of the country. She left a lasting legacy characterized by commitment, compassion, and diligence. The American Red Cross and the National First Aid Society, which she founded, have become integral parts of medical care provision and emergency preparedness globally.
Harper, J. E. (2003). Women during the Civil War: An Encyclopedia. Abingdon, UK: Routledge
Michals, D. ed. (2015). Clara Barton (1821-1912). National Women’s History Museum. Retrieved from: https://www.womenshistory.org/education-resources/biographies/clara-barton