The American Red Cross was founded in 1881 by Clara Barton and a group of acquaintances in Washington, D.C. Barton was inspired to start the organization when she heard about the work the International Red Cross was doing in Europe after the Civil War. When Barton returned to the United States, she launched a campaign to launch a Red Cross Society in her home country. She also pushed for the United States to ratify the Geneva Convention's standards that non-combatants and injured or sick fighters during war time are to be treated humanely.
Barton was the leader for the American Red Cross until 1904. During the time she was the organization's head, the American Red Cross was involved in disaster relief efforts, both at home and overseas. The organization also provided aid to the U.S. military effort during the Spanish-American war.
In the years leading up to the start of World War I in 1914, the American Red Cross became involved in public health, first aid, and water safety programs. During the War, the number of chapters and members increased dramatically. In 1914, there were 107 local chapters (with 17,000 members). By the time the First World War ended in 1918, the American Red Cross had grown to 3,864 local chapters with 20 million adult members, as well as 11 million junior members. Not only did the Red Cross provide staff for hospitals and ambulance services, but the organization recruited 20,000 registered nurses.
The American Red Cross also contributed to the war effort during World War II. It recruited more than 104,000 nurses for service in the military, shipped over 300,000 tons of supplies overseas, and provided more than 27 million packages to prisoners of war (American and Allied). A national blood program was launched, and it collected 13.3 million pints that were provided to the Armed Forces.
In the years after World War II ended in 1945, the American Red Cross was responsible for introducing a nationwide civilian drug program. This program has continued to the present day, and provides approximately 50 percent of the blood and blood products used by hospitals in the United States.
Currently, the American Red Cross provides the following types of services to people in need, at home and around the world:
- Domestic disaster relief
- International relief and development programs
- Education in public health and safety
- Community services for the needy
- Support for military personnel and their family members
- Collection and distribution of blood and blood products