10 interesting facts about Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross

Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross

Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross

In honor of Women’s History Month, Carol Starre-Kmiecik visited the Mentor Library to talk about the life of Clara Barton, battlefield nurse and founder of the American Red Cross, while in character as Clara.

Here are just 10 things we learned from her talk:

  1. We know her as Clara Barton, but her full name is Clarissa Harlowe Barton. She was named after a character from the novel Clarissa or the History of a Young Lady, which her aunt was reading when Clara was born in 1821.
  2. Clara grew up on a farm in Oxford, Mass. When she was six, she saw an ox slaughtered for food and was a vegetarian from thereon.
  3. When she was eight years old, a phrenologist—one who surmises a person’s psychology using the shape of their patient’s head—predicted that Clara would “always be good and helping people.” (It was also a phrenologist that later recommended she become a teacher to overcome her shyness.)
  4. When she was 11, her brother, David fell from the roof of their family barn. Clara was tasked with caring for and feeding him. She also leeched him twice a day for two years. It was not until a visiting doctor told them to stop leeching him that David recovered. This was Clara’s first exposure to tending for the wounded.
  5. Clara became a teacher at the age of 16. Later, when she was 30, she opened a free school in Bordentown, New Jersey, where there had only been subscription schools before. Under her lead, the school’s attendance grew to more than 600; but its board still hired a man (with less experience than Clara) instead of her as principal (and paid him more than her.) She left the school soon thereafter.
  6. Afterward, she got a job as a clerk in the U.S. Patent Office. In fact, she may well have been the first full-time female employee of the federal government. As you may have guessed, some of her male coworkers treated her poorly—even going so far as to spit tobacco in her skirt.
  7. When the Civil War began, she worked as a battlefield nurse. One of the soldiers to whom she tended told her, “This is the second time you saved my life.” He then explained that she had been his teacher in New Jersey. Clara risked her own life by being on the battlefield. Once, a bullet went through her sleeve and killed the soldier behind her.
  8. Clara was first introduced to the International Red Cross when she visited Switzerland while recovering from a nervous breakdown after the war. When she recommended joining the Red Cross to President Rutherford B. Hayes, he disapproved. However, when she suggested starting an American Red Cross to his antecessor, President Chester Arthur, he loved it. Clara was named its first president in 1881.
  9. When Clara moved the American Red Cross headquarters from Washington D.C. to Glen Echo, Maryland, she would often make the volunteers lunch using food grown in the office’s garden.
  10. Clara lived to be 91. Her last words: “Let me go.”
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