Today, most people know the American Red Cross as the organization that runs blood drives, but its history and mission extend far beyond being a blood bank. Humanitarian worker and Civil War nurse, Clara Barton, founded the American Red Cross after working with the International Red Cross in Europe during the Franco-Prussian War in 1869. At that time in America, medical practices were not formalized. Barton intended for the American Red Cross to bring order to the young country’s humanitarian and disaster relief and preparedness initiatives.

Building from the ground up

Compared to their European counterparts at the time, the United States lacked order in many ways. Medicine was mostly unregulated, and on the battlefield, soldiers were grateful for whatever aid they could get. Clara Barton, one of the most famous medical practitioners in US history, had no certifications, and her clinical knowledge was entirely self-taught. Her time in Europe opened her eyes to what doctoring could be in the United States. With the help of senators, members of Congress, and other legislators, Barton founded the American Red Cross on May 21, 1881.

The first local chapter of the American Red Cross was opened later that year in the town of Dansville, NY. It operated out of the local English Evangelical Lutheran Church, with national headquarters in Washington DC. In early September of 1881, the American Red Cross provided its first disaster relief services in response to the Huron Fire that ravaged the Thumb region of Michigan, leaving thousands homeless and doing millions of dollars’ worth of damage to the surrounding area. On May 31, 1889, the organization came to the rescue following the Johnstown Flood, one of the worst disasters in US history. Over 2,000 people were killed and at least as many were left injured. Today, the American Red Cross continues to provide disaster relief aid, as well as preparedness measures such as blood drives and CPR courses, across the country.