Unknown Historical Figures – Jean Henri Dunant

Jean Henri Dunant, also known as Henry Dunant, was born on May 8, 1828 in Geneva, Switzerland and was the first son a businessman. His parents stressed the value of social work and they were very active in the Geneva society. Dunant spent much of his free time engaged in prison visits and social work during his late adolescence.

On November 30, 1852, Dunant founded the Geneva version of the YMCA and three years later he took part in the Paris meeting devoted to the founding of its international organization. Dunant visited Tunisia, Algeria, and Sicily and published a book on his journey in 1858 called “An Account of the Regency in Tunis”. In 1856, Dunant went to appeal with Napoleon III of France for his land rights in French-occupied Algeria but the French emperor was at his headquarters in Solferino. Dunant had to pack his gear and fo to see him personally to ensure the emperor see the case in Dunant’s favor. He arrived in Solferino on June 24,1859 as a battle was being fought not too far from where he went to see Napoleon III.Twenty-three thousand wounded, dying and dead remained on the battlefield with no care being provided for either side. Dunant himself took the initiative to organize the civilians of Solferino, especially the females, to provide assistance to the injured and sick soldiers. They lacked sufficient materials and supplies, but Dunant himself set up the purchase of the materials they needed to continue to help these soldiers. He convinced them to service the wounded regardless of their position in the battle as per the slogan “Tutti fratelli” (All are brothers).



Dunant wrote a book on the battle and its aftermath called “A Memory of Solferino” and printed the first 1,600 copies himself in 1862. He develops, from his experience, the idea that in the future an organization should exist to give neutral care to both sides wounded. Dunant was then a part of the creation of a five person committee which included: Gustave Moynier (President of the Geneva Society for Public Welfare), Henri Dufour (Swiss army general), Louis Appia (doctor) and Theodore Maunoir (doctor). The first meeting on February 17, 1863 was considered the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross but conflicts between Moynier and Dunant caused Dunant to remain in the shadows of the committee (meaning he was a member but hardly participated in meetings, almost non-member). 

Five years later, Dunant’s business in Algeria failed and he was forced to resign as a part of the Committee because he was a part of the Calvinist Geneva. After his mother died in late 1868, he was also expelled from the YMCA and Moynier went out of his way to ensure that Dunant received no help and that he was essentially forgotten for a time. During the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Dunant created the Common Relief Society and to advocate his ideas while ignoring his piling debt and poverty. He was an honorary member of a number of Red Cross regional branches but he lived in poverty from 1874-1886 and was nearly completely forgotten in history. But, after moving to Heiden in 1888, he was inspired by a homely couple of doctors to write about his life experiences and in 1895, he resurfaced in the public eye. 

Georg Baumberger, chief editor of St Gall neswpaper, wrote an article about Dunant as the founder of the Red Cross. The article entitled “Henri Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross“, appeared in the German Illustrated Magazine Über Land und Meer, and the article was soon reprinted in other publications throughout Europe. The article struck a chord, and he received renewed attention and support and with that came the release of his financial strain. As a result, he received the very first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901 that was jointly given to him and Frederic Passy, a French pacifist.

Sinister plots from Moynier and Dunant’s creditors caused Dunant to suffer from paranoia and depression in his final years of life. He died on October 30, 1910, and his final words were “Where has humanity gone?” He outlived his nemesis Moynier by just two months. 


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