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This Month in Medical History: The business of healing

by Sean Ruck , Contributing Editor
On May 8, 1828, Jean Henry Dunant, the inspiration behind one of the few organizations with brand recognition that rivals McDonald’s, was born. The ready recognition of the organization may be in part, because its logo description -- a red cross -- is also its name.

The founding of the original Red Cross, on which the United States version is based, was started in Switzerland in February of 1863. The organization’s roots aren’t as altruistic as its goals are today.

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Jean Henry Dunant was traveling to meet with Napoleon to get the emperor’s support for a business proposition (a dispute over water rights) heedless of the fact that Napoleon was commanding French and Italian forces against the Austrians near the Italian town of Solferino. Dunant arrived in time to be an observer to one of the bloodiest battles of the nineteenth century. The experience had a profound impact on him. From the unforgettable horrors he witnessed, Dunant crafted a book, Un Souvenir de Solférino [A Memory of Solferino], published in 1862.

His book described the battle, the aftermath of the battle and finally, outlined a plan of action about how the care of the wounded might be best addressed. Spurred by the book, on Feb. 7, 1863, The Geneva Public Welfare Society established a five-person committee composed of a military general, a lawyer, two doctors and Dunant. The committee put out feelers to hold an international conference and Dunant donated substantial amounts of his own money to push the agenda. By traveling across Europe, he met with government officials from a number of countries and secured promises of attendance by their representatives.

The conference was held Oct., 26-29, 1863. Sixteen countries were represented, with 39 delegates in attendance. On Aug. 22, 1864, 12 of those countries signed the Geneva Convention. The Geneva Convention outlined the care of wounded soldiers on the field of battle, guaranteeing neutrality for volunteers and their supplies, providing aid and also decided on a symbol they would use as identification – a red cross on a field of white.

Later, additional conventions were added to provide the same care to sick and injured on sea, prisoners of war and to civilians. Adjustments were also made to its symbol to better serve a larger populace. In Muslim countries, the organization works under the banner of a red crescent and in Iran, a red lion and sun.

In total today, 114 Red Cross, Red Crescent or Red Lion and Sun societies exist, all recognized by the International Committee. In the nearly 150 years of its existence, the organization has provided care for millions of people, helping to ease their pain and suffering.
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