Henry Dunant Biography, Jean Dunant

Jean Henri Dunant

International Committee of the Red Cross

When the world is at war, the sanctity of the Geneva Convention is often invoked, often invoked quite passionately. Ever wonder what’s the connection between war all over the globe and a city in Switzerland, a nation so dedicated to its neutral stance on war that it hasn’t participated in combat with a foreign army since 1815?

One connection is that soldiers get wounded during times of battle. The other connection is Jean Henri Dunant.

Dunant was a businessman from Geneva who’d grown up with parents deeply involved in social activism. His mother, Antoinette Dunant-Colladon, devoted her services to the poor and sick while his father, Jean-Jacques Dunant, was involved with parolees and orphans. Young Jean Henri became involved with prisoners, social activism, and he founded Geneva’s first YMCA in 1852.

Good deeds are virtuous but good grades get you through college. That’s the sad lesson Dunant learned in 1849 when he didn’t make the grade at College Calvin. A banking apprenticeship took the 21-year-old college dropout to Northern Africa, where issues of industrial development became so intolerable that Dunant set off to Solferino, Italy.

Solferino was the headquarters of Napoleon III. Dunant wrote a book glorifying Napoleon III’s leadership; he planned to give it to Napoleon III personally to curry favor for his request for the emperor’s intervention in Northern Africa. The meeting never occurred.

When Dunant reached Solferino on the evening of June 24, 1859, a ferocious battle had been fought earlier in the day. Dunant’s first sight of Solferino was of as many as 40,000 soldiers, wounded or dead, laying abandoned on the battlefield.

The horrified Dunant quickly organized his traveling companions and the local citizenry to rescue the wounded and recover the bodies of the dead. His battle cry became “Tutti fratelli” (All are brothers) in order to unite opposing forces and sympathizers long enough to tend to the wounded. He established makeshift hospitals and organized the purchase of the medical supplies needed. He led negotiations for the release and services of Austrian doctors held captive by the French army.

Upon his return to Geneva, Dunant wrote a book about his experience, Un Souvenir de Solferino (A Memory of Solferino), published in 1862. The book described the destruction of the battle, the human costs incurred, and the chaos that ensued afterward. He suggested the treatment of wounded warriors could be improved with a war-neutral organization that was recognized as a military medical organization. Dunant himself paid for 1,600 copies of his book to be printed; he quickly distributed them to military and political leaders throughout Europe.

Dunant’s book gained enough attention that it was the agenda on the February 1863 meeting of the Geneva Society for Public Welfare. During the meeting, a five-person committee was formed to further pursue the thought. When that five-man committee first convened on February 17, 1863, the International Committee of the Red Cross was founded and a red cross on a white background became the first symbol for a military medical facility.

By August 1864, the idea of organized and respected protection of wounded soldiers and the medical personnel, including the military medics and combat medics who treat them, had swept Europe. Leaders from 12 nations met in Geneva for the official signing of the First Geneva Convention. Two additional nations joined the convention by December of that year.

As military and medical technologies have advanced since its inception, the First Geneva Convention has been updated three times, the last of which was in 1949. Member nations have grown to 194 as of 2011.

Ideological disputes with the president of the Geneva Society for Public Welfare did not go well for Dunant during the time the First Geneva Convention was in development. Dunant was allowed to play only a minor organizational role, off center stage and out of the limelight.

Slighted though he was at the time, his efforts did not go unnoticed for long. In 1901, Jean Henri Dunant became the first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his seminal work on the First Geneva Convention and the establishment of the International Committee of the Red Cross. The French economist, Frederic Passy, also won a Nobel Peace Prize that year.

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