An early taste of nursing

Clarissa Harlowe Barton was born in Oxford, Massachusetts, on Christmas Day 1821. She grew up on a large farm with her parents, Stephen and Sarah Stone Barton, and four older brothers and sisters. Clara was ten years younger than any of the other children. This situation, she later admitted, sometimes made it seem like she had "six fathers and mothers. . . . All took charge of me, all educated me, each according to personal taste."

"When there is no longer a soldier's arm to raise the Stars and Stripes above our Capital, may God give strength to mine."

Clara Barton. (Courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration.)

In many ways, Clara had a very good childhood. The family farm was quite successful, and she received lots of attention from her parents and her older siblings. But she had few playmates, and Barton's childhood interests were not always shared by her older brothers and sisters. This sometimes made her feel isolated from others, and she became a shy and sensitive youngster.

When Barton was eleven years old, her brother David was injured in a construction accident. "I was distressed beyond measure at his condition," Barton recalled. "From the first days and nights of illness, I remained near his side." Eventually, she learned to give David his medications and "to administer them like a genuine nurse." As Barton cared for her older brother over the next several months, she felt more useful than ever before.

When David finally recovered from his injuries, Clara decided to continue caring for the sick and injured. Following her father's example, she began to take on charity work in the area. After a while, she became a tutor to poor children. She even provided nursing assistance to area families when a deadly smallpox epidemic washed over the region. Barton eventually caught smallpox herself. But even though her recovery was long and difficult, she never regretted the assistance that she had provided.

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