14 Facts About Clara Barton

Mathew Brady, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain
Mathew Brady, National Archives and Records Administration // Public Domain

To call Clara Barton just a nurse insults her legacy, despite what your history teacher may have taught you. She was a woman of numerous accomplishments, and in some ways, she was all too human. Here are 14 facts you probably didn’t know about this great American icon, who was born on this day 197 years ago.

1. SHE ALMOST DIED WHEN SHE WAS 5.

Barton, the youngest of five siblings, was born Clarissa Harlowe Barton to Stephen and Sarah Stone Barton on Christmas Day in 1821, in North Oxford, Massachusetts. (Her name came from the novel Clarissa: or the History of a Young Lady by Samuel Richardson.) Her father was a militia captain and natural storyteller; her mother was well-known for her eccentricities: For example, she would bake pies for the family that she did not intend to share, preferring that they instead grow moldy.

But the pie situation wasn’t the most traumatic part of Barton’s youth. In her memoir The Story of My Childhood, she recounts being stricken with bloody dysentery and convulsions at the age of 5. Her family assumed she would not survive, and a report went out that she had died. Thankfully, she went on to make a full recovery, and later, as a nurse, she’d help soldiers suffering from the same illness.

2. ONE OF HER FIRST JOBS WAS AS A PAINTER’S ASSISTANT.

When her family moved to a new home in the 1830s, Barton became fascinated with the house painter’s technique and talked her way into being his helper. “I was taught how to hold my brushes, to take care of them, allowed to help grind my paints, shown how to mix and blend them, how to make putty and use it, to prepare oils and dryings … So interested was I, that I never wearied of my work for a day, and at the end of a month looked on sadly as the utensils, brushes, buckets, and great marble slab were taken away,” she wrote. The experience may have sparked her lifelong love of the arts. She also liked to play the piano, dance, draw, go to the theater, dress up in high Victorian fashion and jewelry, and collect books for her extensive library. Her favorite color was red.

3. A FAMOUS PHRENOLOGIST THOUGHT SHE SHOULD BECOME A TEACHER.

In 1836, a phrenologist named L.N. Fowler examined Barton and suggested to her parents that she should pursue a career in teaching. After six years teaching in Oxford, Massachusetts schools, Barton opened her own school in 1845 to serve the children of workers in her brother’s mill. She went on to create a free public school in New Jersey; however, it grew so large that local leaders refused to let her run it and brought in a male principal. So Barton left.

4. SHE MADE A SALARY EQUAL TO A MAN’S—BUT HAD A SEXIST BOSS.

Perhaps disillusioned by the experience at the school she founded, Barton temporarily left teaching in 1854 and went on to become a recording clerk in the U.S. Patent Office in Washington, D.C., where her salary—$1400 a year—was the same as her male co-workers’. Unfortunately, Secretary Robert McClelland of the Interior Department—which had jurisdiction over the patent office at the time—didn’t want women as federal employees, and demoted her to copyist making 10 cents per 100 words copied. In 1857, President James “Ten-Cent Jimmy” Buchanan did away with her position, but the next administration—Abraham Lincoln’s—reinstated it.

5. THE CIVIL WAR GAVE BARTON HER FAMOUS NICKNAME.

In 1833, her brother David had fallen off the roof of a barn, and for two years Barton had dedicated herself to his care during his recovery. Her early experience in nursing found an outlet in the Civil War and, at age 39, Clara found her calling—even though nursing was then seen as a man’s profession.

A week after war broke out, Barton discovered injured soldiers from the 6th Massachusetts Infantry housed in the Senate chamber of the U.S. Capitol. She used supplies from her home for their care, and eventually founded her own supply distribution agency. Her ministrations earned her the sobriquet “Angel of the Battlefield.” The first battle where she is known to have assisted was the 1862 Battle of Cedar Mountain in Culpeper County, Virginia. More than 3000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed or wounded in the two-day fight.

6. SHE HAD A BRUSH WITH DEATH IN THE BATTLE OF ANTIETAM.

Just one month after her first battlefield triage, Barton almost lost her life in the gruesome Battle of Antietam. As she lifted a wounded man’s head to give him some water, a bullet ripped through the sleeve of her dress. She survived, but her patient didn’t: "A ball has passed between my body and the right arm which supported him, cutting through his chest from shoulder to shoulder. There was no more to be done for him and I left him to his rest,” Barton wrote. “I have never mended that hole in my sleeve.”

Another time, she encountered a soldier who had been her former student at her school in New Jersey. “This is the second time you saved my life,” he told her.

7. SHE SUFFERED FROM DEPRESSION.

Away from the intense action of Civil War battles, Barton suffered from depression. In early 1864, the lack of activity, combined with an inability to secure a supply warehouse, got the better of her. “All the world appears selfish and treacherous. I can get no hold on a good noble sentiment any where. I have scanned over and over the whole moral horizon and it is all dark,” she wrote. She thought about killing herself, and it wasn’t the first time. What brought her out of it was having purpose again, notes Barton biographer Elizabeth Brown Pryor in Clara Barton: Professional Angel. Pryor suggests that Barton thrived in scenarios that others would run from.

8. SOME THOUGHT SHE WAS HAVING AN AFFAIR WITH A SENATOR.

In 1861, Barton met Senator Henry Wilson, a Massachusetts Republican, abolitionist, and future U.S. vice president under Ulysses S. Grant. He became a close confidant, someone she felt comfortable talking about her innermost feelings with. He turned out to be a good person to know professionally, too: He procured a railroad pass for her, which allowed her to travel to battlefields free of charge, and she asked him to furnish supplies for soldiers, including “whiskey, brandy, wine, condensed milk, [and] prepared meats.” They shared a strong work ethic and a love of the Republican party. Their closeness prompted some to whisper of romance between them while Wilson was married and after his wife died, but there was no concrete proof. Still, some of Barton’s family members thought that marriage was imminent soon before he died in 1875. (Barton never married or had children.)

9. HER WAR-RELATED EFFORTS DIDN’T END WITH THE WAR.

Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, and that May, Barton resumed her career in education. This time, she taught skills to freed slaves.

Near the conclusion of the Civil War, many soldiers remained missing. Barton created the Office of Correspondence with Friends of the Missing Men of the United States Army in 1865. Operating out of the Washington, D.C. boarding house where Barton lived, the office received more than 63,000 pieces of correspondence inquiring about missing family members—all of which were answered by the office’s 12 clerks. Barton’s organization was able to locate 22,000 missing soldiers, 13,000 of whom had perished in the Confederacy’s Andersonville Prison. As a result, the government established a national cemetery at Andersonville. (Congress also reimbursed her for the $15,000 it cost to establish the office.)

10. THE OFFICE’S HEADQUARTERS WAS DISCOVERED BY ACCIDENT.

In 1996, a General Services Administration inspector discovered Barton’s long-forgotten headquarters at the D.C. boarding house as he was preparing the building for demolition. Barton’s effects had been lying there for over a century. Construction was halted, and almost 20 years later, the building was re-opened as the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum at 437 7th Street NW.

11. SHE SPOKE OUT FOR WOMEN’S SUFFRAGE.

In 1866 Barton embarked on a nationwide lecture tour after the war and shared the stage with Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and other thinkers. She also met two leading lights of the women’s rights movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, who supported her interest in women’s suffrage. “I did not purchase my freedom with a price; I was born free; and when, as a younger woman I heard the subject discussed, it seemed simply ridiculous that any sensible, sane person should question it,” Barton wrote in a speech supporting women’s right to vote. “And when, later, the phase of woman’s right to suffrage came up it was to me only a part of the whole, just as natural, just as right, and just as certain to take place.” She encouraged veterans to support a woman’s right to vote, not-too-subtly suggesting that they should help women win that right as she had helped them survive the wounds of war.

12. SHE CO-FOUNDED THE AMERICAN RED CROSS.

After the Office of Correspondence closed down, she went to Europe to relax and recuperate. In Switzerland, she learned about the International Red Cross, which had been founded in 1863 to help victims of humanitarian crises. She soon launched an effort to establish a similar organization in the United States, even trying to enlist then-President Rutherford B. Hayes in its creation. On May 21, 1881, she and Adolphus Solomons, a community leader active in numerous charities, co-founded the American Red Cross. She was appointed its president the following month and served for the next 23 years, and never received a salary.

In addition to helping those affected by war, the American Red Cross stepped in to assist survivors of natural disasters. Its first test was a massive forest fire in Michigan in 1881, which burned more than a million acres in 24 hours and left thousands homeless. In its first couple of decades, the Red Cross provided supplies and relief to victims of the Johnstown flood in 1889 and the 1900 Galveston hurricane.

13. SHE WAS CAT-CRAZY.

Barton grew up on a farm and loved animals. Really loved animals. She could ride a horse by age 5 thanks to her brother David’s instruction. Her first pet, a dog she named Button, was “a sprightly, medium-sized, very white dog, with silky ears, sparkling black eyes and a very short tail,” she recalled in The Story of My Childhood. She was also given animals as gifts: Rep. Schuyler Colfax of Indiana sent her a kitten to thank her for her work at Antietam, and a family friend presented her with two-and-a-half-dozen ducks.

Like another famous nurse, Florence Nightingale, Barton had a soft spot for cats. Her favorite was Tommy, her faithful black-and-white companion for almost two decades. Her friend and fellow nurse Antoinette Margot painted a portrait of Tommy in 1885, which is still on display at the Clara Barton National Historic Site in Glen Echo, Maryland.

14. SHE SHARED A HAIRSTYLE WITH PRINCESS LEIA.

There are some eerie similarities between Barton and Carrie Fisher, the actress who played Princess Leia in the Star Wars films: Barton and Fisher suffered from mental illness; had movies that drew from their lives (Postcards from the Edge in Fisher’s case, Angel of Mercy in Barton’s); were authors; were feminists; and were parts of large, talented families. And as Jake Wynn and Amelia Grabowski point out in a blog post for the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum, they also share the same braided and bun hairstyles.

Wynn wrote that that their power isn’t hurt by the fact that they were vain: Though Barton was brave, she was also worried about how the war would affect her hair. “They are both people who are unapologetically in the middle of the action," Grabowski added. "They are risking their lives and making a difference. The guys would be lost without them."

11 Facts About Johann Sebastian Bach

Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images
Illustration by Mental Floss. Image: Rischgitz, Getty Images

Johann Sebastian Bach is everywhere. Weddings? Bach. Haunted houses? Bach. Church? Bach. Shredding electric guitar solos? Look, it’s Bach! The Baroque composer produced more than 1100 works, from liturgical organ pieces to secular cantatas for orchestra, and his ideas about musical form and harmony continue to influence generations of music-makers. Here are 11 things you might not know about the man behind the music.

1. There's some disagreement about when he was actually born.

Some people celebrate Bach’s birthday on March 21. Other people light the candles on March 31. The correct date depends on whom you ask. Bach was born in Thuringia in 1685, when the German state was still observing the Julian calendar. Today, we use the Gregorian calendar, which shifted the dates by 11 days. And while most biographies opt for the March 31 date, Bach scholar Christopher Wolff firmly roots for Team 21. “True, his life was actually 11 days longer because Protestant Germany adopted the Gregorian calendar in 1700,” he told Classical MPR, “but with the legal stipulation that all dates prior to Dec. 31, 1699, remain valid.”

2. He was at the center of a musical dynasty.

Bach’s great-grandfather was a piper. His grandfather was a court musician. His father was a violinist, organist, court trumpeter, and kettledrum player. At least two of his uncles were composers. He had five brothers—all named Johann—and the three who lived to adulthood became musicians. J.S. Bach also had 20 children, and, of those who lived past childhood, at least five became professional composers. According to the Nekrolog, an obituary written by Bach’s son Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach, "[S]tarting with Veit Bach, the founding father of this family, all his descendants, down to the seventh generation, have dedicated themselves to the profession of music, with only a few exceptions."

3. He took a musical pilgrimage that puts every road trip to Woodstock to shame.

In 1705, 20-year-old Bach walked 280 miles—that's right, walked—from the city of Arnstadt to Lübeck in northern Germany to hear a concert by the influential organist and composer Dieterich Buxtehude. He stuck around for four months to study with the musician [PDF]. Bach hoped to succeed Buxtehude as the organist of Lübeck's St. Mary's Church, but marriage to one of Buxtehude's daughters was a prerequisite to taking over the job. Bach declined, and walked back home.

4. He brawled with his students.

One of Bach’s first jobs was as a church organist in Arnstadt. When he signed up for the role, nobody told him he also had to teach a student choir and orchestra, a responsibility Bach hated. Not one to mince words, Bach one day lost patience with a error-prone bassoonist, Johann Geyersbach, and called him a zippelfagottist—that is, a “nanny-goat bassoonist.” Those were fighting words. Days later, Geyersbach attacked Bach with a walking stick. Bach pulled a dagger. The rumble escalated into a full-blown scrum that required the two be pulled apart.

5. He spent 30 days in jail for quitting his job.

When Bach took a job in 1708 as a chamber musician in the court of the Duke of Saxe-Weimar, he once again assumed a slew of responsibilities that he never signed up for. This time, he took it in stride, believing his hard work would lead to his promotion to kapellmeister (music director). But after five years, the top job was handed to the former kapellmeister’s son. Furious, Bach resigned and joined a rival court. As retribution, the duke jailed him for four weeks. Bach spent his time in the slammer writing preludes for organ.

6. The Brandenburg Concertos were a failed job application.

Around 1721, Bach was the head of court music for Prince Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen. Unfortunately, the composer reportedly didn’t get along with the prince’s new wife, and he started looking for a new gig. (Notice a pattern?) Bach polished some manuscripts that had been sitting around and mailed them to a potential employer, Christian Ludwig, the Margrave of Brandenburg. That package, which included the Brandenburg Concertos—now considered some of the most important orchestral compositions of the Baroque era—failed to get Bach the job [PDF].

7. He wrote an amazing coffee jingle.

Bach apparently loved coffee enough to write a song about it: "Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht" ("Be still, stop chattering"). Performed in 1735 at Zimmerman’s coffee house in Leipzig, the song is about a coffee-obsessed woman whose father wants her to stop drinking the caffeinated stuff. She rebels and sings this stanza:

Ah! How sweet coffee tastes
More delicious than a thousand kisses
Milder than muscatel wine.
Coffee, I have to have coffee,
And, if someone wants to pamper me,
Ah, then bring me coffee as a gift!

8. If Bach challenged you to a keyboard duel, you were guaranteed to be embarrassed.

In 1717, Louis Marchand, a harpsichordist from France, was invited to play for Augustus, Elector of Saxony, and performed so well that he was offered a position playing for the court. This annoyed the court’s concertmaster, who found Marchand arrogant and insufferable. To scare the French harpsichordist away, the concertmaster hatched a plan with his friend, J.S. Bach: a keyboard duel. Bach and Marchand would improvise over a number of different styles, and the winner would take home 500 talers. But when Marchand learned just how talented Bach was, he hightailed it out of town.

9. Some of his music may have been composed to help with insomnia.

Some people are ashamed to admit that classical music, especially the Baroque style, makes them sleepy. Be ashamed no more! According to Bach’s earliest biographer, the Goldberg Variations were composed to help Count Hermann Karl von Keyserling overcome insomnia. (This story, to be fair, is disputed.) Whatever the truth, it hasn’t stopped the Andersson Dance troupe from presenting a fantastic Goldberg-based tour of performances called “Ternary Patterns for Insomnia.” Sleep researchers have also suggested studying the tunes’ effects on sleeplessness [PDF].

10. A botched eye surgery blinded him.

When Bach was 65, he had eye surgery. The “couching” procedure, which was performed by a traveling surgeon named John Taylor, involved shoving the cataract deep into the eye with a blunt instrument. Post-op, Taylor gave the composer eye drops that contained pigeon blood, mercury, and pulverized sugar. It didn’t work. Bach went blind and died shortly after. Meanwhile, Taylor moved on to botch more musical surgeries. He would perform the same procedure on the composer George Frideric Handel, who also went blind.

11. Nobody is 100 percent confident that Bach is buried in his grave.

In 1894, the pastor of St. John’s Church in Leipzig wanted to move the composer’s body out of the church graveyard to a more dignified setting. There was one small problem: Bach had been buried in an unmarked grave, as was common for regular folks at the time. According to craniologist Wilhelm His, a dig crew tried its best to find the composer but instead found “heaps of bones, some in many layers lying on top of each other, some mixed in with the remains of coffins, others already smashed by the hacking of the diggers.” The team later claimed to find Bach’s box, but there’s doubt they found the right (de)composer. Today, Bach supposedly resides in Leipzig’s St. Thomas Church.

15 Positively Reinforcing Facts About B.F. Skinner

Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0
Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

Burrhus Frederic Skinner was one of the preeminent American psychologists of the 20th century. B.F. Skinner founded “radical behaviorism”—a twist on traditional behaviorism, a field of psychology that focused exclusively on observable human behavior. Thoughts, feelings, and perceptions were cast aside as unobservable.

B.F. Skinner dubbed his own method of observing behavior “operant conditioning,” which posited that behavior is determined solely by its consequences—either reinforcements or punishments. He also coined the term "positive reinforcement." 

To Skinner’s critics, the idea that these “principles of reinforcement,” as he called them, lead to easy “behavior modification” suggested that we do not have free will and are little more than automatons acting in response to stimuli. But his fans considered him visionary. Controversial to the end, B.F. Skinner was well known for his unconventional methods, unusual inventions, and utopian—some say dystopian—ideas about human society.

1. B.F. Skinner invented the "operant conditioning" or "Skinner" box.

Skinner believed that the best way to understand behavior is to look at the causes of an action and its consequences. He called this approach “operant conditioning.” Skinner began by studying rats interacting with an environment inside a box, where they were rewarded with a pellet of food for responding to a stimulus like light or sound with desired behavior. This simple experiment design would over the years take on dark metaphorical meaning: Any environment that had mechanisms in place to manipulate or control behavior could be called a "Skinner box." Recently, some have argued that social media is a sort of digital Skinner box: Likes, clicks, and shares are the pellet-like rewards we get for responding to our environment with certain behavior. Yes, we are the rats.

2. B.F. Skinner believed that all behavior was affected by one of three "operants."

Skinner proposed there were only three “operants” that had affected human behavior. Neutral operants were responses from the environment that had a benign effect on a behavior. Reinforcers were responses that increased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. And punishers decreased the likelihood of a behavior’s repetition. While he was correct that behavior can be modified via this system, it’s only one of many methods for doing so, and it failed to take into account how emotions, thoughts, and—as we learned eventually—the brain itself account for changes in behavior.

3. He's responsible for the term "positive reinforcement."

B.F. Skinner eventually moved on to studying pigeons in his Skinner box. The pigeons would peck at a disc to gain access to food at various intervals, and for completing certain tasks. From this Skinner concluded that some form of reinforcement was crucial in learning new behaviors. To his mind, positive reinforcement strengthens a behavior by providing a consequence an individual finds rewarding. He concluded that reinforced behavior tends to be repeated and strengthened.

4. Some critics felt "positive reinforcement" amounted to bribery.

Critics were dubious that Skinner's focus on behavior modification through positive reinforcement of desired behavior could actually change behavior for the long term, and that it was little more than temporary reward, like bribery, for a short-term behavioral change.

5. B.F. Skinner's idea of "negative reinforcement" isn't what you think.

Skinner believed negative reinforcement also helped to strengthen behavior; this doesn't mean exposing an animal or person to a negative stimulus, but rather removing an “unpleasant reinforcer.” The idea was that removing the negative stimulus would feel like a “reward” to the animal or person.

6. B.F. Skinner taught pigeons to play ping-pong.

As part of his research into positive reinforcement, he taught pigeons to play ping-pong as a first step in seeing how trainable they were. He ultimately wanted to teach them to guide bombs and missiles and even convinced the military to fund his research to that effect. He liked working with pigeons because they responded well to reinforcements and punishments, thus validating his theories. We know now that pigeons can be trained in a whole host of tasks, including distinguishing written words from nonsense and spotting cancer.

7. B.F. Skinner's first book, The Behavior of Organisms, broke new ground.

Published in 1938, Skinner’s debut book made the case that simple observation of cause and effect, reward and punishment, were as significant to understanding behavior as other “conceptual or neural processes.”

Skinner believed behavior was everything. Thoughts and feelings were just unreliable byproducts of behaviors, he argued—and therefore dismissed them. Many of his fellow psychologists disagreed. Regardless, Skinner’s theories contributed to a greater understanding of the relationship between stimuli and resulting behavior and may have even laid the groundwork for understanding the brain’s reward circuitry, which centers around the amygdala.

8. B.F. Skinner created the "baby tender."

Skinner was fond of inventions, and having children gave him a new outlet for his tendencies. He designed a special crib for his infant daughter called “the baby tender.” The clear box, with air holes, was heated so that the baby didn't need blankets. Unlike typical cribs, there were no slats in the sides, which he said prevented possible injury. Unsurprisingly, it did not catch on with the public.

9. B.F. Skinner also developed his own "teaching machine."


Silly rabbit via Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 3.0

You may have Skinner to thank for modern school workbooks and test-taking procedures. In 1954 Skinner visited his daughter’s classroom and found himself frustrated with the “inefficiencies” of the teaching procedures. His first "teaching machine"—a very basic program to improve teaching methods for spelling, math, and other school subjects—was little more than a fill-in-the-blank method on workbook or computer. It’s now considered a precursor to computer-assisted learning programs.

10. Skinner imaged an ideal society based on his theories of human behavior.

Skinner admired Henry David Thoreau’s famous book Walden, in which Thoreau writes about his retreat to the woods to get in greater contact with his inner nature. Skinner's "Ten Commandments" for a utopian world include: “(1) No way of life is inevitable. Examine your own closely. (2) If you do not like it, change it. (3) But do not try to change it through political action. Even if you succeed in gaining power, you will not likely be able to use it any more wisely than your predecessors. (4) Ask only to be left alone to solve your problems in your own way. (5) Simplify your needs. Learn how to be happy with fewer possessions.”

11. B.F. Skinner wrote a utopian novel, Walden Two.

Though inspired by Walden, Skinner also felt the book was too self-indulgent, so he wrote his own fictional follow-up with the 1948 novel Walden Two. The book proposed a type of utopian—some say dystopian—society that employed a system of behavior modification based on operant conditioning. This system of rewards and punishments would, Skinner proposed, make people into good citizens:

“We can achieve a sort of control under which the controlled, though they are following a code much more scrupulously than was ever the case under the old system, nevertheless feel free. They are doing what they want to do, not what they are forced to do. That's the source of the tremendous power of positive reinforcement—there's no restraint and no revolt. By careful cultural design, we control not the final behavior, but the inclination to behave—the motives, desires, the wishes.”

12. Some felt Skinner's ideas were reductionist ...

Critics, of which there were many, felt he reduced human behavior to a series of actions and reactions: that an individual human “mind” only existed in a social context, and that humans could be easily manipulated by external cues. He did not put much store in his critics. Even at age 83, just three years before he died, he told Daniel Goleman in a 1987 New York Times article, “I think cognitive psychology is a great hoax and a fraud, and that goes for brain science, too. They are nowhere near answering the important questions about behavior.”

13. ... and others were horrified by Walden Two.

Astronomer and colleague JK Jessup wrote, “Skinner's utopian vision could change the nature of Western civilization more disastrously than the nuclear physicists and biochemists combined.”

14. B.F. Skinner implied that humans had no free will or individual consciousness.

In the late 1960s and early '70s, Skinner wrote several works applying his behavioral theories to society, including Beyond Freedom and Dignity (1971). He drew fire for implying that humans had no free will or individual consciousness but could simply be controlled by reward and punishment. His critics shouldn't have been surprised: this was the very essence of his behaviorism. He, however, was unconcerned with criticism. His daughter Julie S. Vargas has written that “Skinner felt that by answering critics (a) you showed that their criticism affected you; and (b) you gave them attention, thus raising their reputation. So he left replies to others.”

15. He died convinced that the fate of humanity lay in applying his methods of behavioral science to society.

In 1990, he died of leukemia at age 86 after receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Association. Proud of his work, he was nonetheless concerned about the fate of humanity and worried “about daily life in Western culture, international conflict and peace, and why people were not acting to save the world.”

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