Barton had risen to fame for her humanitarian work during the Civil War. Previously a teacher and patent clerk, during the war Barton had—among other contributions—distributed medical supplies and nursed soldiers independently of any organization. Immediately following the war, she had spearheaded an effort to locate tens of thousands of missing soldiers, including helping to identify the thousands of bodies buried at the brutal Confederate Andersonville Prison. While on the lecture circuit to discuss her experiences, Barton—then in her late 40s—began to suffer from poor health, so on a doctor’s suggestion, she traveled to Europe in 1869 to rest.
While in Europe, Barton was introduced to the International Red Cross and got to see the organization in action during the Franco-Prussian War, which occurred while she was in Europe. She helped the International Red Cross with its humanitarian mission during the conflict and decided to create an American branch when she returned home.
Before America could join the International Red Cross, however, it had to sign the First (1864) Geneva Convention, which set up rules governing the protection and neutrality of civilian aid workers during wartime, among other things. America had previously declined to sign the Convention, and Barton had a long road ahead of her as she first battled her own illnesses and then worked for years to gain acceptance for the Convention and the Red Cross in the United States.
Finally, under the administration of President Chester A. Arthur, the First Geneva Convention was ratified in 1882. However, in anticipation of that, Barton had held the first meeting of the American Red Cross a year prior, in May 1881. Part of what led to the acceptance of the Red Cross in America were Barton’s efforts to show that the organization could contribute during peacetime, as well as wartime, by providing relief following natural disasters. During Barton’s time as president of the Red Cross, she headed 18 relief efforts around the country and abroad.
Barton remained president of the American Red Cross until 1904, when she resigned at age 82 amid increasing criticism of her leadership methods and handling of money. She would go on to live another eight years, during which time she founded an organization that taught first aid.
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