Jean Henri Dunant (1828-1910) was a Swiss merchant who, as a witness to the cruelties of the battle of Solferino, made public the inefficiency of the sanitary organizations in wartime and developed a vision for a relief society of trained volunteers that resulted in the founding of the Red Cross.
Jean Henri Dunant was born on May 8, 1828, in Geneva, Switzerland, to parents who belonged to the nobility. Combining Christian faith with a strong sense of charity, humanity, and justice, his parents taught their young son to respect and support those in need. He often accompanied his mother on her visits to the poor and sick in Geneva's suburbs, visits to dark streets that he would later recall as his first encounters with misfortune and misery. In these early years, the mother's generosity passed to the son, whose enthusiasm for improvement would accompany him throughout his life.
During his first years of adulthood, Dunant focused his efforts on the promotion of the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA). Founded in 1844 by London merchant George Williams, the YMCA had quickly spread to the Continent and subsequently to the United States and Canada. Eight years later, Dunant was among the cofounders of the YMCA in Geneva. He promoted (and in 1855 succeeded in) the unification of the various YMCA groups that existed in Europe and overseas.
Dunant's professional career began as a merchant and banker, an occupation that led him to Algeria from 1853-59. More than 20 years earlier, in 1830, Algeria had been conquered by France, and since then many young adventurers had sought their fortunes there. Dunant had similar intentions. He opened his own business of cornmills and marble quarries, financed by influential citizens of Geneva. Though he had acquired French citizenship in 1858, he continued to be harassed by the colonial bureaucracy in Algeria. To stop these impediments, he planned to speak to French emperor Napoleon III, personally.
In his leisure hours, Dunant observed the manners and habits of the North African people, praising their hospitality, codes of honor, and chivalry—qualities that, he believed, were deficient in the European nations. Devoting some time to reading, he was deeply impressed by Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin and spoke strongly against slavery as it was practiced in the north of Africa. He especially condemned the transatlantic slave trade to the United States and remained perplexed by American members of the YMCA who tolerated what he considered the blatant violation of the message of Christianity.
In the summer of 1859, Dunant traveled to Italy. His suitcase contained a written homage to Napoleon III who, in alliance with Sardinia, was waging a war on Austria. On June 24, the two armies met at Solferino, a few miles west of the city of Mantua. The ensuing battle—though of small strategic or political significance—was one of the most devastating battles fought in terms of casualties. Nearly 40,000 wounded men begged for help on the battlefield at the fighting's end. Dunant, known as "the man in white" because of his tropical outfit, was attempting to arrange his meeting with Napoleon, but found himself instead witnessing the shocking scene:
Some, who had gaping wounds already beginning to show infection, were almost crazed with suffering. They begged to be put out of their misery, and writhed with faces distorted in the grip of the death-struggle. There were poor fellows who had not only been hit by bullets or knocked down by shell splinters, but whose arms and legs had been broken by artillery wheels passing over them.
Realizing that thousands of lives would be lost within the following days due to a lack of surgeons, medication, nurses, bandages, and food, Dunant headed for the French headquarters and successfully persuaded Marshal MacMahon to liberate all captive Austrian surgeons so that they might be allowed to tend their wounded. Three days later, permission was officially granted by Emperor Napoleon. Meanwhile, churches and private houses of nearby Castiglione were transformed into hospitals. But the number of convoys of wounded increased to such proportions that:
the local authorities, the townspeople, and the troops left in Castiglione, were absolutely incapable of dealing with all the suffering. Scenes as tragic as those of the day before, though of a very different sort, began to take place. There was water and food, but even so, men died of hunger and thirst; there was plenty of lint, but there were not enough hands to dress wounds; most of the army doctors had to go on to Cavriana, there was a shortage of medical orderlies, and at this critical time no help was to be had.
With the assistance of Don Lorenzo Barzizza, priest of Castiglione, Dunant gathered several hundred women who were willing to act as nurses, cooks, and laundresses to help the wounded—regardless of their background or nationality. Tutti fratelli (all brothers) became the slogan that helped save hundreds of lives.
Dunant tirelessly tended the wounded, organized supplies, and wrote letters to military headquarters, as well as to personal friends in Geneva, asking them to send clothes, bandages, medication, camomile to cleanse the wounds, and tobacco (to offer a distraction to the wounded and dying). After two weeks of immense struggle, Dunant left Castiglione, exhausted. In Milano, and later in his hometown Geneva, news of his efforts spread rapidly. High-ranking families invited him to their homes and palaces. Wherever he went, he was celebrated as a great benefactor to humanity.
To improve his business in Algeria, Dunant then moved to Paris, where memories of the wounded and dying continued to haunt him. In three years' time, he wrote and published an account of these last days of June 1859. In 1862, Un Souvenir de Solferino (A Memory of Solferino) was printed in Geneva at the author's expense and distributed among his friends and the courts in Europe. Solferino immediately attracted a wide circle of readers; within a few years, it was translated into 12 languages. Generals and field-marshals, along with princes and dukes, expressed their willingness to support Dunant's plan to improve the care of wounded soldiers.
One of the first to compliment him on his book was the lawyer Gustave Moynier of Geneva. Dunant, Moynier, and three other friends—the "Committee of Five," as they were called—drew up a memorandum, calling for an international conference to inquire into "the means of providing for the Inadequacy of the Sanitary Service of Armies in the Field." The memorandum suggested a solution: the institutionalization of a committee designed to answer the needs of troops wounded in battle. After the International Congress of Welfare in Berlin was called off, the Committee of Five decided to bring its cause before the Congress of Statistics which was to take place in Berlin.
One of Dunant's great admirers was the surgeon-mayor Doctor Basting who had translated Solferino into Dutch and who, like Dunant, would be participating in the congress. When they met for the first time, Dunant and Basting immediately discovered mutual interests and became close friends. Indeed, together with Basting, Dunant rewrote the memorandum only a few days before the opening of the congress, adding aspects which would be of the utmost importance. He requested that "the Governments of Europe agree that for the future the military staff and attendants, together with the officially recognized volunteer ambulance corps, be regarded as neutrals by the belligerents."
The Congress of Statistics in Berlin proved a big success for Dunant, and delegates of various European countries were invited to an International Congress in Geneva set for October 26, 1863. But Dunant's decision to alter the memorandum without consulting the other members of the Committee of Five led to a cool reception back in Geneva. Moynier, especially, reproved Dunant for his impetuosity and sought to curb it by appointing Dunant as secretary of the congress over which Moynier was to preside.
From October 26-29, 36 delegates of 16 countries discussed the issues promoted and presented by the Committee of Five. They passed a resolution consisting of ten articles and four recommendations. In times of peace, the various National Committees would store up requisites and enlist and train a Volunteer Ambulance Corps. It was also decided:
In times of war, the committees of the belligerent nations shall furnish the needful supplies to their respective armies. They will organize their Volunteer Ambulance Corps and arrange with the military authorities as to the places where the wounded are to receive attention…. The volunteer assistants will be placed under the orders of the military chiefs, and all shall wear, as a distinctive badge, a red cross on a white ground.
Among the points recommended were: the expressed protection by the government; the neutralization of the Ambulance Corps; and the adoption of a common flag for ambulances and hospitals. Thus, in October of 1863, part of Dunant's dream had come true. The Committee of the Red Cross was founded. The following year, in the Geneva Convention of 1864, the recommendations expressed were fully accepted and integrated into the resolutions. A first, important step toward a new humanitarian international law had been taken.
But as Dunant's star as the promoter of the Red Cross was rising, his career as a merchant and banker was coming to a crushing finale. Devoting himself to his humanitarian work, he had neglected his business obligations for years. The honors that were paid to him could not avert financial bankruptcy and the loss of his reputation. Expelled by his hometown Geneva, and hunted by creditors, Dunant thought it best to leave Switzerland. Even more devastating was his resignation from the Committee of the Red Cross. The other members, Gustave Moynier among them, no longer considered the bankrupt Dunant of value to their cause. Upon discovering years later that Dunant was still using the letterhead of the Red Cross for his correspondence, Moynier sharply rebuked him. Thus, one of Dunant's earliest supporters openly turned into his enemy.
Dunant then spent several years in Paris, where his work with the Red Cross had kept him in high esteem with both the royal family and the aristocracy. Acquaintances, however, became fewer as news of his financial breakdown spread. Still, in Paris, Dunant was more than welcome as an expert in organizing the French Red Cross. In the war of 1870-71, France was heavily defeated at Sedan by a superior German army. Napoleon III was taken prisoner by the Prussians. After the defeat, France proclaimed the downfall of the monarchy and the inauguration of the Third Republic. Following his release, Napoleon lived in exile in England, where he would then die in 1871.
Unexpectedly, Dunant's efforts were supported by the exiled emperor. Dunant was provided with financial aid for the Alliance Universelle de l'ordre et de civilisation, an institution founded to help the victims of the Siege of Paris and of the Civil War in France. Moreover, he was given a house in Paris to use as a home as well as an office. With brighter prospects in mind, in August of 1872 he went to England to win supporters for his new mission to institute a convention for prisoners of war. This enterprise proved quite successful. Among those who complimented him on the recent undertakings was Florence Nightingale, "the lady with the lamp," who had been working as a volunteer nurse during the Crimean War, 1853-56. Devastated by the poor conditions of the military hospitals and the lack of properly trained nurses, Nightingale reorganized military as well as civilian nursing in Britain.
This short period of recognition, however, could not prevent Dunant's slow drift into oblivion. In Europe, Gustave Moynier was celebrated as the founder of the Red Cross, while Dunant gradually lost what had been his hall-marks—his energy and his faith in humanity. He traveled in Europe, taking odd jobs offered to him by old friends, living on their generosity and a small annual pension of 1,200 Swiss francs provided by his family in Geneva.
In 1887, Dunant, prematurely aged and in poor health, moved to Heiden, Switzerland. There, in the hospital where he was treated for his various ailments, he lived a secluded life; few visitors ever broke the monotony and the silence of his room. Likewise, there were not many whom the former "Samaritan of Europe" wished to see. He had become pessimistic and distrustful. No longer hunted or offended, he began to recover his mental stability and was glad for the peaceful retreat in Heiden. A religious man, he spent most of his time speculating on Genesis and Salvation, considering their impact on human evolution.
One friend who remained loyal, despite Dunant's failure, was Rudolf Mueller from Stuttgart, Germany. When, in 1892, an International Congress of the Red Cross was about to take place in Rome, Italy, Mueller published an article in a German newspaper, recalling the beginnings of the Red Cross and referring to Dunant as its founder and promoter. Yet it was not until 1895 that Dunant again became a topic for the public in Europe.
Suddenly, after being presumed dead, Dunant was surrounded by previous and newly won admirers. Swiss journalist George Baumberger's article in a German magazine had revealed that Dunant was indeed alive but living a lonely life of poverty. Baumberger finished his article with an appeal to the readers that, in anyway possible, they support Dunant—a man who had done much for others and asked nothing for himself. Letters of sympathy and encouragement were sent to Dunant, often including money, to make his later years more comfortable. His biographer, Rudolf Mueller, reestablished Dunant's reputation by reminding his audiences of Dunant's situation in many speeches. Mueller and other friends vehemently fought the rumors that Solferino had not been written by Dunant but by a French officer. Dunant knew of these allegations, and freely admitted that in order to correctly record the military details he had consulted army officials; otherwise, Solferino had been completely his own doing.
In 1896, a Dunant fund was started, primarily to enable the "Father of the Red Cross" to live in dignity. In December 1901, the Nobel Committee awarded Dunant with its first Peace Prize, an honor which he shared with Frenchman Frederic Passy. From his hometown Geneva, the International Committee of the Red Cross sent the following message:
There is no man who more deserves this honour, for it was you, forty years ago, who set on foot the international organization for the relief of the wounded on the battlefield. Without you, the Red Cross, the supreme humanitarian achievement of the nineteenth century, would probably never have been undertaken.
One honor seemed to follow another, and, in 1903, the degree of Doctor honoris causa was conferred upon Dunant by the Faculty of Medicine of the University of Heidelberg, Germany.
On October 30, 1910, 82-year-old Jean Henri Dunant died peacefully in the hospital in Heiden. According to his own wishes, he was buried in Zurich.
Further Reading on Jean Henri Dunant
de Lisle, Arnold. The Story of the Red Cross Movement. London: The Banner, 1904.
Dunant, Henry. A Memory of Solferino. Geneva: International Committee of the Red Cross, 1986.
Heudtlass, Willy. J. Henry Dunant, Gruender des Roten Kreuzes, Urheber der Genfer Konvention, Eine Biographie. Stuttgart: Kohlhammer, 1977.
Huber, Max. The Red Cross, Principles and Problems. Geneva: A. Kundig Press, 1942.
Willemin, Georges, and Roger Heacock. "The International Committee of the Red Cross," in International Organization and the Evolution of World Society. Vol. 2. Martin Nijhoff, 1984.