Henri Dunant was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on 8th May, 1828. His father, Jean-Jacques Dunant, was the superintendent of an orphanage and supervisor of prisons. At the age of ten Henri was sent to the College de Geneva. After completing his studies he joined the banking house of Lullin et Sauter.
As a young man he became interested in the work of three outstanding women, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Florence Nightingale and Elizabeth Fry. He was later to write: "The influence of women is an essential factor in the welfare of humanity, and it will become more valuable as time proceeds.
Dunant joined the Christian Association of Geneva, a group of young men who preached religious commitment and tolerance. He became a pacifist and argued for universal fraternity and the rule of law. In 1851 Dunant was impressed by the statement issued by Victor Hugo at the Paris Peace Congress when he predicted that: "A day will come when there will be no battlefields, but markets opening to commerce and minds opening to ideas. A day will come when the bullets and bombs are replaced by votes, by universal suffrage, by the venerable arbitration of a great supreme senate which will be to Europe what Parliament is to England, the Diet to Germany, and the Legislative Assembly to France."
After reading Uncle Tom's Cabin Dunant also developed a strong hatred of slavery and in 1853 met its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, in Geneva. Dunant also wrote, Notes on the Regency of Tunisia, a book that condemning slavery in the USA and Moslem countries.
On 24th June, 1859, Dunant found himself in Northern Italy and witnessed the Battle of Solferino. Dunant immediately began organizing local peasants to carry the wounded from the battlefield. They were taken to local churches where local doctors attempted to help relieve their suffering.
Over 300,000 men of the Austrian and French armies took part in the Battle of Solferino and resulted in the deaths of over 41,000 men. It is estimated another 40,000 men who took part in the battle later died from wounds, fever and disease.
After the battle, Dunant visited Emperor Napoleon III in France and persuaded him to issue the following orders to his soldiers: "Doctors and surgeons attached to the Austrian armies and captured while attending to the wounded shall be unconditionally released; those who have been attending to men wounded at the Battle of Solferino and lying in the hospital at Castiglione shall, at their request, be permitted to return to Austria."
Dunant decided to write a book about his experiences in Solferino. He claimed in A Memory of Solferino (1862) that his intention was to promote the "adoption by all civilized nations of an international and sacred principle which would be assured and placed on record by a convention to be concluded between governments. This would serve as a safeguard for all official and unofficial persons engaged in nursing war victims."
In the book Dunant warned: "If the new and frightful weapons of destruction, which are now at the disposal of the nations, seem destined to abridge the duration of future wars, it appears likely, on the other hand, that future battles will only become more and more murderous." He added: "Would it not be possible, in time of peace and quiet, to form relief societies for the purpose of having care given to the wounded in wartime by zealous, devoted and thoroughly qualified volunteers?
A Memory of Solferino was well received by Victor Hugo who wrote to Dunant that he was " arming humanity and serving the cause of freedom. I pay the highest tribute to your noble efforts." Saint Marc Girardin added that he hoped the "book will be widely read, especially by those who are in favour of warfare, who seek to show its advantages and who speak of it in glowing terms."
Inspired by the work of Florence Nightingale (Crimean War) and Clara Barton (American Civil War), Dunant wanted to establish an organization concerned with the alleviation of human suffering. In 1862 Dunant sent Gustave Moynier, president of Geneva Society for Public Welfare, a copy of A Memory of Solferino. In the book Dunant stated that his intention was to promote the "adoption by all civilized nations of an international and sacred principle which would be assured and placed on record by a convention to be concluded between governments. This would serve as a safeguard for all official and unofficial persons engaged in nursing war victims."
Gustave Moynier went to see Dunant and invited him to a special meeting on 9th February, 1863, of the Geneva Society for Public Welfare. Dunant told the fourteen people who attended that he wanted to form an organization that sent volunteer nurses to the battlefield. He also wanted to improve the methods of transporting the wounded and the care they received in military hospitals.
After the meeting it was decided to form an International Committee for Relief to the Wounded. Guillaume Dufour was to be president while Dunant, Thomas Maunoir, Gustave Moynier, and Louis Appia agreed to serve as board members. This eventually became the International Committee of the Red Cross.
In 1864 the five men organized an international conference of 13 nations in Geneva to discuss the possibility of making warfare more "humane". At the end of the conference on 22nd August, 1864, the representatives signed the Geneva Convention. The agreement provided for the neutrality of ambulance and military hospitals, the non-belligerent status of persons who aid the wounded, and sick soldiers of any nationality, the return of prisoners to their country if they are incapable of serving, and the adoption of a white flag with a red cross for use on hospitals, ambulances, and evacuation centres whose neutrality would be recognized by this symbol.
The campaign then began to persuade the different countries to ratify the Convention. It was approved by Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway, Spain and Switzerland in 1864. They were followed by Britain (1865), Prussia (1865), Greece (1865), Turkey (1865), Austria (1866), Portugal (1866), Russia (1867), Persia (1874), Serbia (1876), Chile (1879), Argentina (1879), Peru (1880), USA (1882), Bulgaria (1884), Japan (1886), Luxemburg (1888), Venezuela (1894), South Africa (1896), Uruguay (1900), Guatemala (1903), Mexico (1905), China (1906), Germany (1906), Brazil (1906), Cuba (1907), Panama (1907) and Paraguay (1907).
Dunant was a director of one of Geneva's main banks, Credit Genevois. In 1867 the directors were accused of bad judgement and a conflict of interest when it was discovered they had been buying and selling shares in some stone quarries in Algeria. On 17th October, the city's Commercial Court reached the verdict that the directors' actions were "grossly beyond the limits that a vigilant and conscientious board of directors should have permitted." As a result of this ruling Dunant was forced to resign as secretary of the International Committee of the Red Cross.
Financially ruined by the failure of the Credit Genevois, Dunant spent the rest of his life in poverty. However he continued to campaign for international disarmament and the establishment of a Jewish homeland. In 1901 was awarded the first Nobel Prize for Peace. Henri Dunant died in Heiden, Switzerland, on 30th October, 1910.