Until the middle of the 19th century, there were no organized and/or well-established army nursing systems for casualties and no safe and protected institutions to accommodate and treat those who were wounded on the battlefield. In June 1859, the Swiss businessman Jean-Henri Dunant traveled to Italy to meet French emperor Napoléon III with the intention of discussing difficulties in conducting business in Algeria, at that time occupied by France. When he arrived in the small town of Solferino the evening of June 24, he witnessed the Battle of Solferino, an engagement in the Austro-Sardinian War.
In a single day, about 40,000 soldiers on both sides died or were left wounded on the field. Jean-Henri Dunant was shocked by the terrible aftermath of the battle, the suffering of the wounded soldiers, and the near-total lack of medical attendance and basic care. He completely abandoned the original intent of his trip and for several days he devoted himself to helping with the treatment and care for the wounded. He succeeded in organizing an overwhelming level of relief assistance by motivating the local villagers to aid without discrimination.
Back in his home in Geneva, he decided to write a book entitled “A Memory of Solferino”, which he published with his own money in 1862. He sent copies of the book to leading political and military figures throughout Europe. In addition to penning a vivid description of his experiences in Solferino in 1859, he explicitly advocated the formation of national voluntary relief organizations to help nurse wounded soldiers in the case of war. In addition, he called for the development of international treaties to guarantee the protection of neutral medics and field hospitals for soldiers wounded on the battlefield.
In 1863, Gustave Moynier, a Geneva lawyer and president of the Geneva Society for Public Welfare, received a copy of Dunant's book and introduced it for discussion at a meeting of that society. As a result of this initial discussion the society established an investigatory commission to examine the feasibility of Dunant's suggestions and eventually to organize an international conference about their possible implementation. The members of this committee, which has subsequently been referred to as the "Committee of the Five," aside from Dunant and Moynier were physician Louis Appia, who had significant experience working as a field surgeon; Appia's friend and colleague Théodore Maunoir, from the Geneva Hygiene and Health Commission; and Guillaume-Henri Dufour, a Swiss Army general of great renown. Eight days later, the five men decided to rename the committee to the "International Committee for Relief to the Wounded". In October (26–29) 1863, the international conference organized by the committee was held in Geneva to develop possible measures to improve medical services on the battlefield.
Among the proposals written in the final resolutions of the conference, adopted on October 29, 1863, were:
The foundation of national relief societies for wounded soldiers;
On August 22, 1864, the conference adopted the first Geneva Convention "for the Amelioration of the Condition of the Wounded in Armies in the Field". The convention contained ten articles, establishing for the first time legally binding rules guaranteeing neutrality and protection for wounded soldiers, field medical personnel, and specific humanitarian institutions in an armed conflict. Furthermore, the convention defined two specific requirements for recognition of a national relief society by the International Committee:
In the following years, national societies were founded in nearly every country in Europe. In 1876, the committee adopted the name "International Committee of the Red Cross" (ICRC), which is still its official designation today. Five years later, the American Red Cross was founded through the efforts of Clara Barton.More and more countries signed the Geneva Convention and began to respect it in practice during armed conflicts. In a rather short period of time, the Red Cross gained huge momentum as an internationally respected movement, and the national societies became increasingly popular as a venue for volunteer work.
When the first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 1901, the Norwegian Nobel Committee opted to give it jointly to Jean-Henri Dunant and Frédéric Passy, a leading international pacifist. More significant than the honor of the prize itself, the official congratulation from the International Committee of the Red Cross marked the overdue rehabilitation of Jean-Henri Dunant and represented a tribute to his key role in the formation of the Red Cross.