Did you know May 8 is World Red Cross Day? It’s not the day the International Red Cross was founded, but it is the birthday of the man whose vision led to the creation of the worldwide Red Cross and Red Crescent movement. His name was Henry Dunant and he was a joint recipient of the very first Nobel Peace Prize.
Henry Dunant was born in Geneva, Switzerland on May 8, 1828. The Red Cross idea was born 31 years later in 1859, when Dunant came upon the scene of a bloody battle in Solferino, Italy, between the armies of imperial Austria and the Franco-Sardinian alliance. Some 40,000 men lay dead or dying on the battlefield and the wounded were lacking medical attention.
Dunant organized local people to bind the soldiers’ wounds and to feed and comfort them. Once he returned to Switzerland, he called for the creation of national relief societies to assist those wounded in war, and pointed the way to the future Geneva Conventions.
“Would there not be some means, during a period of peace and calm, of forming relief societies whose object would be to have the wounded cared for in time of war by enthusiastic, devoted volunteers, fully qualified for the task?” he wrote.
The Red Cross was born in 1863 when five Geneva men, including Dunant, set up the International Committee for Relief to the Wounded, later to become the International Committee of the Red Cross. Its emblem was a red cross on a white background: the inverse of the Swiss flag.
The following year, 12 governments adopted the first Geneva Convention; a milestone in the history of humanity, offering care for the wounded, and defining medical services as “neutral” on the battlefield.
During this same time, Clara Barton was risking her life to bring supplies and support to soldiers in the field during the Civil War (1861-1865). Like a few other women, Barton provided clothing and assorted foods and supplies to the sick and wounded soldiers. Barton prodded leaders in the government and the army until she was given passes to bring her voluntary services and medical supplies to the scenes of battle and field hospitals. Following the battle of Cedar Mountain in northern Virginia in August 1862, she appeared at a field hospital at midnight with a wagon-load of supplies drawn by a four-mule team. The surgeon on duty, overwhelmed by the human disaster surrounding him, wrote later, “I thought that night if heaven ever sent out an angel, she must be one—her assistance was so timely.” Thereafter she was known as the “Angel of the Battlefield.”
Barton visited Europe in search of rest in 1869, she was introduced to a wider field of service through the Red Cross in Geneva, Switzerland. Subsequently, Barton read Henry Dunant’s book A Memory of Solferino. Later Barton would fight hard and successfully for the ratification of this treaty by the United States, which ratified it in 1882.
A more immediate call to action occurred in 1870 with the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. Though not yet allied to the Red Cross, Barton knew the needs of victims of battle and went to the war zone with volunteers of the International Red Cross. To protect herself with the newly accepted international symbol of the Red Cross, she fashioned a cross out of red ribbon she was wearing. Barton helped distribute relief supplies to the destitute in France. She also opened workrooms to help the citizens of Strasbourg make new clothes.
Inspired by her experiences in Europe, Barton corresponded with Red Cross officials in Switzerland after her return to the United States. In 1881, Barton and a group of supporters formed the American Association of the Red Cross as a District of Columbia corporation. The Geneva Convention treaty was signed shortly afterwards in the United States by President Chester Arthur.
The Red Cross flag flew officially for the first time in this country in 1881, when Barton issued a public appeal for funds and clothing to aid victims of a devastating forest fire in Michigan, dubbed as “The Great Thumb Fire.”
Today, the American Red Cross responds to a disaster every 8 minutes and is part of the world’s largest humanitarian network with 13 million volunteers in 180 countries.
Learn more about the Red Cross and its history at redcross.org.