Jean Henri Dunant

From New World Encyclopedia

Dunant as an elderly man.

Jean Henri Dunant (May 8, 1828 - October 30, 1910), also known as Henry Dunant or Henri Dunant, was a Swiss businessman and social activist. During a business trip in 1859, he was witness to the aftermath of the Battle of Solferino in modern day Italy. He recorded his memories and experiences in the book, A Memory of Solferino, which became the inspiration for the creation of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

The 1864 Geneva Convention was based on Dunant's ideas and in 1901, he received the first Nobel Peace Prize together with Frédéric Passy. The series of Geneva Conventions are among the foundation documents of international law. The International Committee of the Red Cross has played a vital role in helping to regulate the conduct of war and the treatment of prisoners. Its aid workers have often been the first to reach, and the last to leave, areas of humanitarian need or of crises. Few agencies have such a distinguished record of service to humanity.

Early life and education

Dunant was born in Geneva, Switzerland, as the first son of businessman Jean-Jacques Dunant and his wife, Antoinette Dunant-Colladon. His family was very devoutly Calvinist and had significant influence in Geneva society. His parents strongly stressed the value of social work, and his father was active helping orphans and parolees, while his mother worked with the sick and poor. Particularly influential for young Dunant was a visit to Toulon, where he saw the suffering of prison inmates.

Dunant grew up during the period of religious awakening known as the Réveil, and at age eighteen, he joined the Geneva Society for Alms Giving. In the following year, together with friends, he founded the so-called "Thursday Association," a loose band of young men that met to study the Bible and help the poor, and he spent much of his free time engaged in prison visits and social work. On November 30, 1852, he founded the Geneva chapter of the YMCA and three years later, he took part in the Paris meeting devoted to the founding of its international organization.

At age twenty-four, Dunant was forced to leave the Collège Calvin because of bad grades, and he began an apprenticeship with the money-changing firm, Lullin und Sautter. After its successful conclusion, he remained as an employee of the bank.


Henri Dunant, around 1860.

In 1853, Dunant visited Algeria, Tunisia, and Sicily, on assignment with a company devoted to the "colonies of Setif" (Compagnie genevoise des Colonies de Sétif). Despite little experience, he successfully fulfilled the assignment. Inspired by the trip, he wrote his first book with the title, An Account of the Regency in Tunis (Notice sur la Régence de Tunis), published in 1858.

In 1856, he created a business to operate in foreign colonies, and, after granted a land concession by French-occupied Algeria, a corn-growing and trading company called the Financial and Industrial Company of Mons-Djémila Mills (Société financière et industrielle des Moulins des Mons-Djémila). However, the land and water rights were not clearly assigned, and the colonial authorities were not especially cooperative. As a result, Dunant decided to appeal directly to French emperor Napoléon III, who was with his army in Lombardy at the time. France was fighting on the side of Piedmont-Sardinia against Austria, who had occupied much of today's Italy. Napoleon's headquarters were located in the small city of Solferino. Dunant wrote a flattering book full of praise for Napoleon III with the intention to present it to the emperor, and then traveled to Solferino to meet with him personally.

Battle of Solferino

Dunant arrived in Solferino on the evening of June 24, 1859, on the same day a battle between the two sides had occurred nearby. Thirty-eight thousand injured, dying, and dead remained on the battlefield, and there appeared to be little attempt to provide care. Shocked, Dunant himself took the initiative to organize the civilian population, especially the women and girls, to provide assistance to the injured and sick soldiers. They lacked sufficient materials and supplies, and Dunant himself organized the purchase of needed materials and helped erect makeshift hospitals. He convinced the population to service the injured without regard to their side in the conflict as per the slogan "Tutti fratelli" ("All are brothers") coined by the women of nearby city, Castiglione delle Stiviere. He also succeeded in gaining the release of Austrian doctors captured by the French.

The Red Cross

After returning to Geneva early in July, Dunant decided to write a book about his experiences, which he titled Un Souvenir de Solferino (A Memory of Solferino). It was published in 1862, in an edition of 1,600 copies and was printed at Dunant's own expense. Within the book, he described the battle, its costs, and the chaotic circumstances afterwards. He also developed the idea that in the future, a neutral organization should exist to provide care to wounded soldiers. He distributed the book to many leading political and military figures in Europe.

Drawing of the five founders of the International Committee.

Dunant also began to travel through Europe to promote his ideas. His book was largely positively received, and the President of the Geneva Society for Public Welfare, jurist Gustave Moynier, made the book and its suggestions the topic of the February 9, 1863, meeting of the organization. Dunant's recommendations were examined and positively assessed by the members. They created a five-person Committee to further pursue the possibility of their implementation and made Dunant one of the members. The others were Moynier, the Swiss army general Henri Dufour, and doctors Louis Appia and Théodore Maunoir. Their first meeting on February 17, 1863, is now considered the founding date of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

From early on, Moynier and Dunant had increasing disagreements and conflicts regarding their respective visions and plans. Moynier considered Dunant's idea to establish neutrality protections for care providers implausible and advised Dunant not to insist upon this concept. However, Dunant continued to advocate this position in his travels and conversations with high-ranking political and military figures. This intensified the personal conflict between Moynier, who took a rather pragmatic approach to the project, and Dunant, who was the visionary idealist among the five, and led to efforts by Moynier to attack Dunant and his bid for leadership.

In October 1863, fourteen states took part in a meeting in Geneva organized by the committee to discuss the improvement of care for wounded soldiers. Dunant himself, however, was only a protocol leader because of Moynier's efforts to diminish his role. A year later, a diplomatic conference organized by the Swiss Parliament led to the signing of the first Geneva Convention by twelve states. Dunant, again, was only in charge of organizing accommodation for the attendees.

Forgotten period

Dunant's businesses in Algeria had suffered, partially because of his devotion to his ideas. His Nobel Biography points out that he "poured his" own "money and time into the cause," so much so that after his business failed he would sometimes dine "on a crust of bread, blackened his coat with ink, whitened his collar with chalk" and "slept out of doors."[1] In April 1867, the bankruptcy of the financial firm Crédit Genevois led to a scandal involving Dunant. He was forced to declare bankruptcy and was condemned by the Geneva Trade Court on August 17, 1868, for deceptive practices in the bankruptcies. Due to their investments in the firm, his family and many of his friends were also heavily affected by the downfall of the company. The social outcry in Geneva, a city deeply rooted in Calvinist traditions, also led to calls for him to separate himself from the International Committee. On August 25, 1867, he resigned as Secretary and on September 8, he was fully removed from the Committee. Moynier, who had become President of the Committee in 1864, played a major role in his expulsion.

In February 1868, Dunant's mother died. Later that year he was also expelled from the YMCA. In March 1867, he left his home city Geneva and would not return for the rest of his life. In the following years, Moynier likely used his influence to attempt to insure that Dunant would not receive assistance from his friends and support. For example, the gold medal prize of Sciences Morales at the Paris World's Fair did not go to Dunant as originally planned but to Moynier, Dufour, and Dunant together so that the prize money would only go to the Committee as a whole. Napoléon III's offer to take over half of Dunant's debts if Dunant's friends would secure the other half was also thwarted by Moynier's efforts.

Dunant moved to Paris where he lived in poor and meager conditions. However, he continued to pursue his humanitarian ideas and plans. During the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871), he founded the "Common Relief Society" (Allgemeine Fürsorgegesellschaft) and soon after, the "Common Alliance for Order and Civilization" (Allgemeine Allianz für Ordnung und Zivilisation). He argued for disarmament negotiations and for the erection of an international court to mediate international conflicts. Later, he worked for the erection of a world library, an idea which has echoes in future projects like those of UNESCO. He also advocated the creation of a Jewish state in the area of Palestine/Israel.

However, due to his continued pursuit and advocacy of his ideas, he further neglected his personal situation and income, falling further in debt and being shunned by his acquaintances. Despite being appointed an honorary member of the national Red Cross societies of Austria, the Netherlands, Sweden, Prussia, and Spain, he was nearly forgotten in the official discourse of the Red Cross Movement, even as it was rapidly expanding to new countries. He lived in poverty, moving to various places between 1874 and 1886, including Stuttgart, Rome, Corfu, Basel, and Karlsruhe. In Stuttgart, he met the Tübingen University student Rudolf Müller with whom he would have a close friendship. In 1881, together with friends from Stuttgart, he went to the small Swiss resort village Heiden for the first time. In 1887, while living in London, he began to receive some monthly financial support from some distant family members. Enabling him to live a bit more secure existence, he moved to Heiden in July. He spent the rest of his life there and after April 30, 1892, he lived in a hospital and nursing home led by Dr. Hermann Altherr.

In Heiden, he met the young teacher, Wilhelm Sonderegger, and his wife, Susanna; they encouraged him to record his life experiences. Sonderegger's wife founded a branch of the Red Cross in Heiden and in 1890, Dunant became its honorary president. With Sonderegger, Dunant hoped to further promote his ideas, including publishing a new edition of his book. However, later their friendship was strained by Dunant's unjustified accusations that Sonderegger was somehow conspiring against Dunant with Moynier in Geneva. Sonderegger died in 1904, at the age of only forty-two. Despite their strained relationship, Dunant was deeply moved by the unexpected death. Wilhelm and Susanna Sonderegger's admiration for Dunant, felt by both even after Dunant's allegations, was passed on to their children. In 1935, their son René published a compilation of letters from Dunant to his father.

Return to public memory

Henry Dunant memorial in Heiden, Switzerland.

In September 1895, Georg Baumberger, the chief editor of the St. Gallen newspaper, Die Ostschweiz, wrote an article about the Red Cross founder, whom he had met and conversed with during a walk in Heiden a month earlier. 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. He received the Swiss Binet-Fendt Prize and a note from Pope Leo XIII. Because of support from Russian tsarist widow, Maria Feodorovna and other donations, his financial situation improved remarkably.

In 1897, Rudolf Müller, who was now working as a teacher in Stuttgart, wrote a book about the origins of the Red Cross, altering the official history to stress Dunant's role. The book also contained the text of "A memory of Solferino." Dunant began an exchange of correspondence with Bertha von Suttner and wrote numerous articles and writings. He was also especially active in writing about women's rights and in 1897, facilitated the founding of a "Green Cross" women's organization.

Nobel Peace Prize

In 1901, Dunant was awarded the first-ever Nobel Peace Prize for his role in founding the International Red Cross Movement and initiating the Geneva Convention. Norwegian military physician Hans Daae, who had received a copy of Rudolf Müller's book, advocated Dunant's case on the Nobel committee. The award was jointly given to French pacifist Frédéric Passy, founder of the Peace League and active with Dunant in the Alliance for Order and Civilization. The official congratulations which he received from the International Committee finally represented the long overdue rehabilitation of Dunant's reputation:

"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 have never been undertaken."

Moynier and the International Committee as a whole had also been nominated for the prize. Although Dunant was supported by a broad spectrum in the selection process, he was still a controversial candidate. Some argued that the Red Cross and the Geneva Convention had made war more attractive and imaginable by eliminating some of its suffering. Therefore, Rudolf Müller, in a letter to the committee, argued that the prize should be divided between Dunant and Passy, who was for some time in the debate the leading candidate to solely receive the prize. Müller also suggested that if a prize were to be warranted for Dunant, it should be given immediately because of his advanced age and ill health.

By dividing the prize between strict pacifist Passy and humanitarian Dunant, the Nobel Committee set a precedent for the conditions of the Nobel Peace Prize selection which would have significant consequences for later years. A section of Nobel's will had indicated the prize should go to an individual who had worked to reduce or eliminate standing armies or directly promote peace conferences, which made Passy a natural choice for his peace work. On the other hand, the arguably distinct bestowal for humanitarian effort alone was seen by some as a wide interpretation of Nobel's will. However, another part of Nobel's testament marked the prize for the individual who had best enhanced the "brotherhood of people," which could be read more generally to see humanitarian work like Dunant's as connected to peacemaking as well. Many recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize in later years can be assigned to either of these two categories first roughly established by the Nobel committee's decision in 1901.

Hans Daae succeeded in placing Dunant's part of the prize money, 104,000 Swiss Francs, in a Norwegian Bank and preventing access by his creditors. Dunant himself never spent any of the money during his life time.


Grave of Henry Dunant.

Among several other awards in the following years, in 1903, Dunant was given an honorary doctorate by the medical faculty of the University of Heidelberg. He lived in the nursing home in Heiden until his death. In the final years of his life, he suffered from depression and paranoia about pursuit by his creditors and Moynier. There were even days when Dunant insisted that the cook of the nursing home first taste his food before his eyes to protect him against possible poisoning. Although he continued to profess Christian beliefs, in his final years he spurned and attacked Calvinism and organized religion generally.

According to his nurses, the final act of his life was to send a copy of Müller's book to the Italian queen with a personal dedication. He died on October 30, 1910, at 10 p.m., ironically outliving his nemesis, Moynier, by just two months. Despite the ICRC's congratulations at the bestowal of the Nobel prize, the two rivals never reached a reconciliation.

According to his wishes, he was buried without ceremony in the Sihlfeld Cemetery in Zürich. In his will, he donated funds to secure a "free bed" in the Heiden nursing home always to be available for a poor citizen of the region and deeded some money to friends and charitable organizations in Norway and Switzerland. The remaining funds went to his creditors, partially relieving his debt; his inability to fully erase his debts was a major burden to him until his death.

His birthday, May 8, is celebrated as the World Red Cross and Red Crescent Day. The building of the nursing home in Heiden now holds the Henry Dunant Museum. In Geneva and other places, there are numerous streets, squares, and schools named after him. The Henry Dunant Medal, given every two years by the standing commission of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement is its highest decoration.

The period of his life regarding the foundation of The Red Cross is represented, with some fictional elements, in the film Henry Dunant: Du Rouge Sur La Croix.


The International Committee of the Red Cross remains one of the most important Non Governmental Organizations (NGO). It enjoys permanent observer status at the United Nations. Through the series of Geneva Conventions, it has impacted on international law and has the unique right to visit war zones and prisoner of war camps. No other organization of national government enjoys this right in law. It has assisted millions of people around the world. The ICRC itself was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1917, 1944, and in 1963, jointly with Red Cross Societies, and as the Nobel Committee itself writes, "The Red Cross has a unique position in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize. The Norwegian Nobel Committee's choice of Henry Dunant as 1901 laureate was a direct recognition of the role of the ICRC in promoting peace. In this light, it is nearly justifiable to call the Red Cross a "four-time recipient of the Peace Prize."[2]


  1. Norwegian Nobel Committee, Henry Dunant—biography. Retrieved July 20, 2007.
  2. Nobel Prize, The Red Cross: Three Time Recipient of the Peace Prize. Retrieved July 20, 2007.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Boissier, Pierre. History of the International Committee of the Red Cross. Volume I: From Solferino to Tsushima. Geneva: Henry Dunant Institute, 1985. ISBN 2-88044-012-2
  • Durant, Henry. A Memory of Solferino. Geneva: ICRC 1986. ISBN 2-88145-006-7
  • Gumpert, Martin. Dunant. Der Roman des Roten Kreuzes. Frankfurt: Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag, 1987. ISBN 3-596-25261-X
  • Hasler, Eveline. Der Zeitreisende. Die Visionen des Henry Dunant. Zurich: Verlag Nagel & Kimche, 1994. ISBN 3-312-00199-4
  • Heudtlass, Willy and Walter Gruber. Jean Henry Dunant. Gründer des Roten Kreuzes, Urheber der Genfer Konvention. 4. Auflage. Stuttgart: Verlag Kohlhammer, 1985. ISBN 3-17-008670-7
  • Moorehead, Caroline. Dunant's Dream: War, Switzerland and the History of the Red Cross. London: HarperCollins, 1998. ISBN 0-00-255141-1

External links

All links retrieved May 1, 2018.


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