Henry Dunant and the Red Cross

Henry Dunant
(1828 – 1910)

On May 8, 1828, Swiss businessman and social activist Henry Dunant was born. He is best known for the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1863. Also the 1864 Geneva Convention was based on Dunant’s ideas. In 1901 he received the first Nobel Peace Prize together with Frédéric Passy.

Henry Dunant was born into a very religious and influential family in Geneva. His parents used their influence pretty well, helping orphans, sick, and poor people. At the age of 19, Dunant took action himself and founded the “Thursday Association” together with his friends. The Association consisted of several young men praying, reading the Bible together and helping the people in need.

In the 1850’s, Henry Dunant visited Algeria during a business trip and came back three years later to start businesses in corn-growing and trading. During his stay, Dunant began a correspondence with Napoleon III, who had his troops stationed in Lombardy, fighting against Austria at the time. After writing several works in honor to the emperor, he was invited to Solferino, Italy to meet Napoleon.

On the day, Henry Dunant arrived at Solferino in 1859, a battle had just occurred followed by thousands of wounded and dying people just lying on the battlefield. Henry Dunant was astonished by the little care the soldiers received and organized a small group of civilians helping the wounded. The experiences Dunant made in Solferino were published in the book ‘Un Souvenir de Solferino‘ in 1862. In it, the battle and its aftermath were described and he provided a solution for a neutral organisation to take care of wounded soldiers as well as civilians. Henry Dunant’s ideas encountered mostly positive reactions and Gustave Moynier, the President of the Geneva Society for Public Welfare supported the creation of a small group of five men forming the International Commitee of the Red Cross in 1863. In 1864, the commitee and its purpose was well received in Europe and 12 states signed a contract of the First Geneva Convention, defined as “the basis on which rest the rules of international law for the protection of the victims of armed conflicts“.

For many years, Henry Dunant was forgotten and he lived in poverty far away from the public attention he once received. Rudolf Müller’s book about the origins of the Red Cross with citations of ‘A Memory of Solferino‘ caused wealthy people of several nations to support the organisations founder. In 1901, Henry Dunant was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his achievements and his birthday is widely celebrated as World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day.

At yovisto, you may enjoy the TEDx talk by Paul Conneally on Digital Humanitarianism.

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