The Clara Barton Museum Blog

Clara Barton and Nursing

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Riding into work today, I started thinking (dangerous, I know) about some conversation and my work yesterday in our main office in Frederick, MD.  We were discussing unique merchandising ideas for the Missing Soldiers Office and one particular idea is t-shirts with Barton attributes screen-printed on the front.  We discussed how interesting it might be to see which attribute is most popular with visitors.  Nurse, I think, will be tops because nurses seem to be most enthusiastic as a group towards Barton, but Barton did not want to be remembered for nursing.  That led me to consider what lasting contributions Barton made to the profession. 

Ability.  It seems to me that what Barton contributed most was woman’s ability to seriously contribute to the profession.  Most men and women, besides believing it unseemly to care for a strange man, also believed women weren’t capable of the mental and physical aptitude required in medical care.  Barton not only showed women were capable in nursing, she also proved women could work as well as men if not better on the extremely stressful conditions of an active battlefield. Working under fire at the Battle of Antietam, her first experience in the heat of battle, she outlasted the assistant surgeons, hospital stewards and many of the surgeons, all the while suffering from symptoms she thought to be typhoid fever.  Her work went well beyond feeding, reading and writing for and other bedside care limiting nurses in long term hospitals.  Barton performed first aid, triage and sometimes transported patients from the field under fire.

Professionalism.  At the beginning of the war, Barton stated that she struggled with the propriety of a woman assisting unrelated men.  She expressed her concerns to her father, on his deathbed, and he advised her that if she acted professionally they would respect her.  Putting her fears aside to fill the great need, Barton found that her father was correct.  She treated her patients with respect and compassion, and they returned the favor.   Barton impressed the most important men – those who could give her access to the battlefield.  From her return from the Battle of Antietam until his tenure of Surgeon General ended, Barton did not have to beg William Hammond for passes to the field, he asked her to go and gave her transportation.  Barton enabled Hammond to circumvent the antiquated military system and get supplies to the field in a more timely manner.  She also respected the chain of command, requesting permission to work from the appropriate authorities, and arguing with beligerent men before going over their head.  Barton garnered cooperation at the appropriate level.  I know of only one exception and it involved timely care.

Barton’s work as a nurse, along with several other capable women, led to the eventual establishment of women as nurses after the War.  Unfortunately, society pressed to reestablish former spheres of roles for women and men just after the war ended, but progressive Americans established nursing schools for women, which Barton fully supported.  As a famous humanitarian and civil rights advocate, Barton spoke at several commencement ceremonies urging women to demand acceptance and respect.  According to, over 90% of nurses today are women. Barton received many requests for support from what we call today “special interest groups” and she was honest about her priorities and ability to help her favorite causes.  While she turned down active rolls in several, she did make women in the nursing profession a priority.  I believe she would be very proud of how women have taken the challenge and proven her confidence and expectations to be correct.

Thank you to all those who serve as nurses, past and future!

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