Clara Barton Tour Update: From Mercury as Medicine to Modern Disaster Response

The two Clara Barton Study Tour updates below are from Jean Johnson of the Red Cross National Nursing Committee and Linda MacIntyre, chief nurse of the Red Cross, who are taking in tons of impressions and information at the various tour sites.


At Antietam

Wednesday, September 28

We’ve found our way to the Pry House Field Hospital Museum near the Antietam battle site as our first stop on the Clara Barton Tour.  Medications used for surgery necessitated fast surgical procedures as ether wore off quickly. This had its benefits.

However, there were toxic medicines used, such as mercury. One surgeon refused to use a mercury-based medication and was discharged from his post. His colleagues weren’t ready to accept evidence-based medicine—it was later confirmed that mercury caused significant damage to tissue. We also learned that soldiers treated in the barn and field did better in recovery than the officers who were cared for in the Pry House. This was because of the fresh air.

We felt the chill of knowing that 23,000 soldiers from both the North and South died, were wounded, or missing in the battle of Antietam. The rolling hills, cornfields, and peacefulness contrasted with the stories of heroic efforts to treat the wounded and comfort the dying. The national monument in the park to Clara Barton recognized her contribution to caring for the wounded and dying. Notably, this was the only monument to a woman in Antietam National Battlefield Park.

Continuing our immersion in the Civil War, we visited the National Museum of Civil War Medicine in Frederick, Maryland. We were awed by reading a letter from a wife who was seeking her husband and hearing Clara’s response along with letters from two soldiers who were among the last to see the husband. Such correspondence brings the war to a very personal level.

Hazards of staying in camp. Surpringly, the Army of the Potomac only spent 46 days in battle over four years. Staying in camps for long periods of time led to the majority of deaths in the Civil War, we learned, mostly due to illness from causes that are treatable today. We heard story after story of Clara’s amazing dedication to caring for the sick and making living in camps healthier.

Thursday, September 29.

richard-lyons-at-missing-soldiers-officeToday we felt the soul of Clara (not to be confused with her spiritualism beliefs!) at the Missing Soldiers Office Museum. We truly walked in her footsteps as we ascended the original staircase to the third floor where her famous room 9 was. This was the room where Clara and her assistants wrote letters and followed up on leads about men listed as missing.

The building that housed the Missing Soldiers Office was once due to be demolished; Richard Lyons (pictured at left) happened upon a letter during his inspection. Mr. Lyons discovered other items of historical value and was tenacious in his efforts to preserve the building.

After the Civil War, Clara Barton located over 20,000 missing soldiers so that their families could have closure about their death. She started this work using her own funds but eventually received a total of $15,000 from Congress to continue her work. A marvelous example of Clara’s determination was a response to a letter from a man whose family had reported him missing but was still living. This gentleman took exception that Clara had included his name in publications of missing soldiers, saying that he would let his friends know about his well-being when he was ready. Clara’s response didn’t mince words. She wrote that she had more sympathy for his mother and sister who were looking for him than she would ever care about his welfare, given that he caused them undue suffering.

We saw as well a historic marker dedicated to Barton at the St. Mary’s Church, and Kevin Patti, a National Park Ranger who has cared for the Clara Barton House in Glen Echo, Maryland, gave us a wonderfully rich virtual tour of her house. The house is closed to the public due to renovations and expected to reopen in 2018.

Connecting past with present.

After immersion in the historic view of Clara, we linked history to present day and visited the Red Cross National Headquarters Disaster Operations Coordination Center and saw how information is collected and disseminated during emergencies. The Red Cross is nationally known as the helping hand during disasters both large and small. The work includes setting up shelters, distributing food, and keeping people safe and healthy during crises. Through generous donations and amazing partners, the Red Cross is able to serve individuals and communities in need.


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