Compilation photo with poster featuring 'American Red Cross' (© FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) and profile portrait of Clara Barton (© AP Images)
An American Red Cross poster from around 1918 advertises the organization's federal charter. Right: Clara Barton, founder of the American Red Cross, in 1884. (© FPG/Hulton Archive/Getty Images, © AP Images)
Illustration of woman talking to soldier, others around them (© Bettmann/Getty Images)
Clara Barton, a nurse and founder of the American Red Cross, originally brought relief to U.S. Civil War soldiers. (© Bettmann/Getty Images)

Exhausted in 1869 after nursing U.S. soldiers in the U.S. Civil War, Clara Barton followed her doctor’s advice and embarked on an extensive European vacation.

But the nurse couldn’t stay away from helping people.

A year into her vacation, Barton volunteered with the Switzerland-based International Committee of the Red Cross during the Franco-Prussian War from 1870 to 1871.

She worked with Grand Duchess Louise of Baden to establish sewing factories in Strasbourg, France, that hired women to make clothes for residents. She helped displaced people move from Strasbourg to Haguenau, France. And she went to Paris to direct relief work — providing food, clothes and money to civilians.

“It started out as a vacation and turned into work,” says Susan Watson, historian and archivist at the American Red Cross. But the trip inspired Barton to found the American Red Cross on May 21, 1881.

The American Red Cross has continued to shelter, feed and offer emotional support to disaster survivors. It teaches lifesaving skills, provides international humanitarian aid, and backs military personnel and their families.

The organization, through its blood drives, supplies nearly 40% of the nation’s blood supply — all from volunteer donors. The Red Cross responds to an emergency every eight minutes, according to its website.

Early mission

In the beginning, the American Red Cross focused primarily on domestic disaster relief, lending a hand to people whose lives were upended by forest fires, floods and hurricanes. The organization raised money and brought in supplies for survivors.

Graphic with data on American Red Cross work (State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)
(State Dept./S. Gemeny Wilkinson)

Following the 1889 Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania, the Red Cross built temporary housing while its Philadelphia chapter provided doctors and nurses. After the 1893 Sea Islands Hurricane near Savannah, Georgia, Barton helped distribute donated clothing to survivors and repair clothes for survivors to resell.

In 1892, when Barton was 70, she took the organization global, partnering with other service organizations for the Red Cross’s first international mission — supporting victims of a Russian famine.

People at long table outside building (© Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images)
Russian peasants receive much-needed nourishment. (© Library of Congress/Corbis/VCG/Getty Images)

Watson says the organization’s relief efforts there helped about 700,000 people.

Barton retired in 1904 after serving as president for 23 years. She died eight years later, in 1912, but her legacy continues.

During World War II, the American Red Cross started collecting blood for injured troops at blood centers around the country — it was converted to dried plasma before it went to field hospitals overseas. The organization went on to establish the first nationwide civilian blood-donation program after the war.

Soldiers gathering drums marked 'ETO Blood Bank' alongside military truck (© Bettmann/Getty Images)
U.S. soldiers gather drums of donated blood near a personnel carrier on a makeshift tarmac during World War II. (© Bettmann/Getty Images)

Today’s Red Cross

The organization is still evolving. A recent program, Restoring Family Links, in 2021 reunited more than 7,000 families who had been separated by international war, conflict and disaster, says Emily Osment, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross.

As Putin’s war in Ukraine intensifies, staff and volunteers from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, as well as in-country societies, are helping families there and in neighboring countries. They are delivering food and hygiene parcels, providing first aid training, evacuating people with disabilities, and helping first responders save lives in Ukraine. Volunteers in bordering countries are assisting too, Osment said.

“They are welcoming, greeting and providing relief to families who are fleeing, in whichever direction they choose to go,” she said, adding that the Red Cross has contributed $12 million to Ukrainian relief crisis relief efforts.

In the United States, the American Red Cross connects military personnel with their families during emergencies. It also helps veterans with mental wellness programs, hospital care and financial aid.

“Once a service member becomes a veteran, we keep providing relief,” Osment said.

A version of this article was previously published May 8, 2020.