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The History And Impact Of The Red Cross

In honor of the founding of the Red Cross on October 29, 1863, here's a closer look at the organization, how it works, and its greatest triumphs.

How It Works

There is no international Red Cross. Instead, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) oversees and approves national Red Cross organizations, ensuring those local organizations always live up to the committee’s objectives. The ICRC also handles a small number of issues that arise during international conflicts which require the oversight of a neutral humanitarian committee.

The International Committee operates out of Geneva, Switzerland (the building pictured above is its headquarters), and all of the people involved in this highest level of the organization must be of Swiss nationality. While this seems to be a little odd given the multi-cultural objectives of the group, the assembly believes the permanent neutrality of their country will ensure that no one ever questions the political motives of the decision makers. They say this way no one will ever feel high-level decisions affecting their country will be made by enemies of their country.

On the other hand, National Red Cross organizations are operated by people from all over the world. There are currently 186 national societies that are officially recognized by the ICRC; almost every country in the world has its own Red Cross society. These organizations provide emergency services, malaria eradication programs, blood drives, and local first aid training programs. The International Committee largely limits its services to investigating the condition of prisoners of war. Both groups help families get in touch with relatives who are separated and lost during global conflicts.

While other groups, like Doctors Without Borders and Amnesty International, release their records regarding the conditions of prisoners of war, the Red Cross generally does not release their findings to anyone except the government involved. While this means they cannot push for more humane treatment of prisoners, it does allow them access to many locations that are off limits for similar groups. If the Committee finds that prisoners are being mistreated, they try to arrange low-key negotiations with the relevant government that will remain confidential.

History

In 1859, Henry Dunant, a Swiss businessman, traveled to Italy to discuss business with Napoleon III. On his way, he witnessed the Battle of Solferino, where 40,000 soldiers from both sides were wounded or killed. Dunant was shocked at the atrocities he saw and immediately set about helping the wounded soldiers who received practically no medical attention after the battle was over. In the end, he ended up abandoning the original motivation for his trip, focusing instead on care for the wounded soldiers. He motivated the local residents to help, too, regardless of their military affiliation.

When Dunant returned to Geneva, he wrote A Memory of Solferino. After sending the book to leading political and military figures in Europe, Dunant began advocating the creation of voluntary relief organizations to help care for wounded soldiers in war. He also pushed for international treaties to assure protection of these relief organizations.

In 1863, Dunant gathered other leading figures from Geneva to discuss the feasibilities of his ideas and how to best implement them. Eight days later, they decided to name the committee the “International Committee for Relief to the Wounded.”

In October of that year, the committee held an international conference to develop measures that would improve battlefield medical services; it was attended by more than 30 representatives from countries throughout Europe. The resolutions adopted from this first meeting included the creation of relief societies, protection for wounded soldiers, and the introduction of a distinctive protection symbol for medics in the field. The symbol chosen at the conference was a white arm band with a red cross—the first official use of the Red Cross logo (although they didn’t start to use that name until 3 years later).

The following year, the Swiss government invited all European governments, the United States, Brazil, and Mexico to attend an official diplomatic conference regarding those resolutions. Sixteen governments sent delegates to this first Geneva Convention, and 12 countries signed the convention binding rules for neutrality and protection for wounded soldiers, field medical personnel, and humanitarian institutions. The convention also defined two requirements for the recognition of a national relief society as defined by the International Committee: A society must be recognized by their own national government, and the country involved must be a party in the Geneva Convention.

Immediately after the Geneva Convention, the first national relief societies were formed in Belguim, Denmark, France, Oldenburg, Prussia, Spain, and Württemberg. Within a few years, almost every country created a relief society—including the American Red Cross, started by Clara Barton.

Major Conflicts

While Red Cross agencies dealt with a number of conflicts after their initial creation, the first major test of their effectiveness was during the first World War. Immediately after the war broke out, the ICRC set up an international Prisoners of War (POW) Agency. By the end of the war, the group transferred about 20 million letters and 18 million Swiss francs worth of donations to POWs in all affected countries. The agency also helped safely exchange 200,000 prisoners, allowing them to return to their home countries.

During the war, they also monitored the fighting countries for compliance with the Geneva Conventions and forwarded their complaints to the countries responsible. When chemical weapons were used for the first time ever, the ICRC fought their use immediately.

While the Geneva Conventions did not dictate that the ICRC should help civilian populations, the committee also helped residents who were suffering from the war. A year before WWI ended, the ICRC received a Nobel Peace Prize for its wartime work. It was the only prize awarded during the conflict.

In 1925, another Geneva Convention was held, and the use of chemical and biological weapons was outlawed. The committee also drafted a new set of rules dictating the proper treatment for prisoners of war.

When WWII started, the ICRC faced quite a challenge: getting access to Nazi concentration camps. It tried applying pressure to the country, but eventually quit pushing so that efforts could be focused on helping POWs from all countries. In 1943, the group finally achieved permission to send parcels to the concentration camp detainees with known names and locations. Because many packages were signed for by persons other than those to whom the package was addressed, the group managed to use these signatures to register the names of around 105,000 detainees in the camps.

(c) Benoit Junod, Switzerland

In March of 1945, the SS allowed delegates to visit concentration camps with the condition that the delegates had to stay in the camps until the war ended. Ten delegates volunteered. One was able to prevent the blasting of Mauthausen-Gusen by American troops, saving 60,000 lives. Unfortunately, this went against the ICRC’s neutrality policy and circumvented their authority, so he was condemned by the organization. They did not apologize until 1990.

The ICRC received a second Nobel Peace Prize in 1944 for its work during the war: once again, the only prize awarded during that period. After the war, the ICRC worked with local Red Cross societies to help provide assistance to the countries most severely affected.

After the war, another convention was held to discuss international laws regarding civil populations during times of war. After all of the conventions and additional protocols were added, the Geneva Convention treaties contain over 600 articles. In around 150 years, the ideas of a Genevan businessman have helped rewrite the acceptable behaviors of countries at war and have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, while improving millions more.

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Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library
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10 Treasures From the New York Academy of Medicine Library
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
A urine wheel from Fasciculus Medicinae
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Tucked away on a side street near Central Park, the New York Academy of Medicine Library is one of the most significant historical medical libraries in the world. Open to the public by appointment since the 19th century, its collection includes 550,000 volumes on subjects ranging from ancient brain surgery to women's medical colleges to George Washington's dentures. A few weeks ago, Mental Floss visited to check out some of their most fascinating items connected to the study of anatomy. Whether it was urine wheels or early anatomy pop-up books, we weren't disappointed.

1. FASCICULUS MEDICINAE (1509)

The Fasciculus Medicinae is a compilation of Greek and Arabic texts first printed in Venice in 1491. While it covers a variety of topics including anatomy and gynecology, the book begins with the discipline considered most important for diagnosing all medical issues at the time: uroscopy (the study of urine). The NYAM Library's curator, Anne Garner, showed us the book's urine wheel, which once had the various flasks of urine colored in to help aid physicians in their diagnosis. Each position of the wheel corresponded to one of the four humors, whether it was phlegmatic, choleric, sanguine, or melancholic. The image on the left, Garner explains, "shows the exciting moment where a servant boy brings his flasks to be analyzed by a professor." Other notable images in the book include one historians like to call "Zodiac Man," showing how the parts of the body were governed by the planets, and "Wound Man," who has been struck by every conceivable weapon, and is accompanied by a text showing how to treat each type of injury. Last but not least, the book includes what's believed to be the first printed image of a dissection.

2. ANDREAS VESALIUS, DE HUMANI CORPORIS FABRICA (1543)

Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Frontispiece of Andreas Vesalius's Fabrica
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Andreas Vesalius, born 1514, was one of the most important anatomists who ever lived. Thanks to him, we moved past an understanding of the human body based primarily on the dissection of animals and toward training that involved the direct dissection of human corpses. The Fabrica was written by Vesalius and published when he was a 28-year-old professor at the University of Padua. Its detailed woodcuts, the most accurate anatomical illustrations up to that point, influenced the depiction of anatomy for centuries to come. "After this book, anatomy divided up into pre-Vesalian and post-Vesalian," Garner says. You can see Vesalius himself in the book's frontispiece (he's the one pointing to the corpse and looking at the viewer). "Vesalius is trying to make a point that he himself is doing the dissection, he believes that to understand the body you have to open it up and look at it," Garner explains.

3. THOMAS GEMINUS, COMPENDIOSA (1559)

Flap anatomy from Thomas Geminus's Compendiosa
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

There was no copyright in the 16th century, and Vesalius's works were re-used by a variety of people for centuries. The first was in Flemish printer and engraver Thomas Geminus’s Compendiosa, which borrowed from several of Vesalius's works. The first edition was published in London just two years after the Fabrica. Alongside a beautiful dedication page made for Elizabeth I and inlaid with real gemstones, the book also includes an example of a "flap anatomy" or a fugitive leaf, which was printed separately with parts that could be cut out and attached to show the various layers of the human body, all the way down to the intestines. As usual for the time, the female is depicted as pregnant, and she holds a mirror that says "know thyself" in Latin.

4. WILLIAM COWPER, THE ANATOMY OF HUMANE BODIES (1698)

Illustration from William Cowper's The Anatomy of Humane Bodies
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

After Vesalius, there was little new in anatomy texts until the Dutch anatomist Govard Bidloo published his Anatomia humani corporis in 1685. The work was expensive and not much of a financial success, so Bidloo sold excess plates to the English anatomist William Cowper, who published the plates with an English text without crediting Bidloo (a number of angry exchanges between the two men followed). The copperplate engravings were drawn by Gérard de Lairesse, who Garner notes was "incredibly talented." But while the engravings are beautiful, they're not always anatomically correct, perhaps because the relationship between de Lairesse and Bidloo was fraught (Bidloo was generally a bit difficult). The skeleton shown above is depicted holding an hourglass, by then a classic of death iconography.

5. 17TH-CENTURY IVORY MANIKINS

17th Century Ivory Manikin
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

These exquisite figures are a bit of a mystery: It was originally thought that they were used in doctors’ offices to educate pregnant women about what was happening to their bodies, but because of their lack of detail, scholars now think they were more likely expensive collector's items displayed in cabinets of curiosity by wealthy male physicians. The arms of the manikins (the term for anatomical figures like this) lift up, allowing the viewer to take apart their removable hearts, intestines, and stomachs; the female figure also has a little baby inside her uterus. There are only about 100 of these left in the world, mostly made in Germany, and NYAM has seven.

6. BERNHARD SIEGFRIED ALBINUS, TABULAE SCELETI (1747)

Illustration from Bernhard Siegfried Albinus's Tabulae Sceleti
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

One of the best-known anatomists of the 18th century, the Dutch anatomist Bernhard Siegfried Albinus went to medical school at age 12 and had a tenured position at the University of Leiden by the time he was 24. The Tabulae Sceleti was his signature work. The artist who worked on the text, Jan Wandelaar, had studied with Gérard de Lairesse, the artist who worked with Bidloo. Wandelaar and Albinus developed what Garner says was a bizarre method of suspending cadavers from the ceiling in the winter and comparing them to a (very cold and naked) living person lying on the floor in the same pose. Albinus also continued the dreamy, baroque funerary landscape of his predecessors, and his anatomy is "very, very accurate," according to Garner.

The atlas also features an appearance by Clara, a celebrity rhinoceros, who was posed with one of the skeletons. "When Albinus is asked why [he included a rhinoceros], he says, 'Oh, Clara is just another natural wonder of the world, she's this amazing creation,' but really we think Clara is there to sell more atlases because she was so popular," Garner says.

7. FERDINAND HEBRA, ATLAS DER HAUTKRANKHEITEN (1856–1876)

Circus performer Georg Constantin as depicted in Ferdinand Hebra's dermatological atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

By the mid-19th century, dermatology had started to emerge as its own discipline, and the Vienna-based Ferdinand Hebra was a leading light in the field. He began publishing this dermatological atlas in 1856 (it appeared in 10 installments), featuring chromolithographs that showed different stages of skin diseases and other dermatological irregularities.

"While some of the images are very disturbing, they also tend to adhere to Victorian portrait conventions, with very ornate hair, and [subjects] looking off in the distance," Garner says. But one of the most famous images from the book has nothing to do with disease—it's a depiction of Georg Constantin, a well-known Albanian circus performer in his day, who was covered in 388 tattoos of animals, flowers, and other symbols. He travelled throughout Europe and North America, and was known as "Prince Constantine" during a spell with Barnum's Circus. (The image is also available from NYAM as a coloring sheet.)

8. KOICHI SHIBATA, OBSTETRICAL POCKET PHANTOM (1895)

19th century Obstetrical Pocket Phantom
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Obstetrical phantoms, often made of cloth, wood, or leather, were used to teach medical students about childbirth. This "pocket phantom" was originally published in Germany, and Garner explains that because it was made out of paper, it was much cheaper for medical students. The accompanying text, translated in Philadelphia, tells how to arrange the phantom and describes the potential difficulties of various positions.

9. ROBERT L. DICKINSON AND ABRAM BELSKIE, BIRTH ATLAS (1940)

Image from Robert Dickinson's Birth Atlas
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

Robert Dickinson was a Brooklyn gynecologist, early birth control advocate, and active member of NYAM. His Birth Atlas is illustrated with incredibly lifelike terracotta models created by New Jersey sculptor Abram Belskie. The models were exhibited at the 1939 New York World's Fair, where they became incredibly popular, drawing around 700,000 people according to Garner. His depictions "are very beautiful and serene, and a totally different way of showing fetal development than anything that had come before," Garner notes.

10. RALPH H. SEGAL, THE BODYSCOPE (1948)

The Bodyscope
Courtesy New York Academy of Medicine Library

This midcentury cardboard anatomy guide contains male and female figures as well as rotating wheels, called volvelles, that can be turned to display details on different parts of the body as well as accompanying explanatory text. The Bodyscope is also decorated with images of notable medical men—and "wise" sayings about God's influence on the body.

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23 Funny Historical Letters to Santa
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At the end of the 19th century, illustrator Thomas Nast popularized our current version of Santa Claus: a fat, jolly man with a white beard and a red suit who lives at the North Pole. Nast’s cartoons in publications like Harper’s Weekly also helped spread the idea of sending St. Nick mail. By the late 1870s, American children had begun mailing their Christmas wish lists to Santa, but the Post Office considered these letters undeliverable. Around this time, newspapers began prompting children to send wish lists to them, which would then be published so that Santa (and parents) could read the letters all in one place. We’ve collected 23 funny historical letters from children to Santa Claus, as printed in newspapers across the U.S.

1. CONRAD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Conrad tries to mask his violent tendencies by interspersing the weapons between non-threatening gifts, but he shows his hand with that threat at the end.

2. CLIFFORD FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

Clifford sounds ... intense.

3. MARIE FROM NEBRASKA (1896)

The Courier, Dec. 19, 1896

“As I can not have it I will not ask for it" ... but I will mention it, just in case.

4. LYNWOOD FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

“I smashed everything you sent me last year." I won’t tell you what I want this year, but you better not mess up.

5. PAUL FROM VIRGINIA (1903)

This 4-year-old is very concerned about his infant brother’s lack of teeth. Since the local doctor has proved useless to rectify the situation, Paul hopes Santa might be able to lend a hand. He is magical, after all.

6. HARRY FROM MONTANA (1903)

Fergus County Argus, Dec. 16, 1903

Who knew keeping your feet dry was such an important part of staying off the Naughty list?

7. RAYMOND FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

Clarence doesn’t sound very nice.

8. PERCY FROM WEST VIRGINIA (1907)

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Poor Opal and Mildred. They’re just girls. Do girls even have preferences?

9. VIRGINIA FROM MISSOURI (1907)

Virginia understands that sometimes Santa needs to delegate.

10. ROBERT FROM TENNESSEE (1913)

The Commercial, Dec. 19, 1913

Old people get lonely.

11. WILLIE FROM FLORIDA (1915)

Sure, an axe sounds like an age-appropriate gift for a five-year-old.

12. ELEANOR FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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“Bring both if possible.”

13. UNSIGNED LETTER FROM FLORIDA (1913)

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This transplant from Maine would really like a basketball, but he doesn’t quite believe that a Santa Claus can exist in Florida, where there isn’t even any snow.

14. WALTER FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Daytona Daily News, Dec. 17, 1915

Good choice not to act a pig, Walter.

15. MERLA FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Merla will not be ignored!

16. ROY FROM FLORIDA (1915)

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The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

A doll dressed in a cowboy suit could not be called Raymond. A lack of sailor suit is a dealbreaker.

17. MAXWELL FROM FLORIDA

The Pensacola Journal, Dec. 24, 1915

Ways to improve your chances of getting a pony from Santa, according to Maxwell Hudson: 1. Admit right off it’s expensive. 2. Say you will use it to take your sisters to school. 3. Promise to be grateful for anything Santa brings, so as not to seem greedy. 4. Make yourself seem extra kindhearted (and thus deserving of a pony) by showing concern for your fatherless neighbors. Did it work? We will never know.

18. MOXIE FROM TENNESSEE (1916)

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Perhaps a kid known for being mean shouldn’t be given a firearm.

19. DICK FROM SOUTH CAROLINA (1916)

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The County Record, Dec. 21, 1916

No, Santa certainly wouldn’t want to get “fastened in” the chimney.

20. JOHN FROM NEW MEXICO (1918)

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World War I devastated Western Europe, decimating a generation of young men—and apparently killing the French Santa Claus.

21. MARY FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

Come on, Mary, Santa’s not a mind reader.

22. JEWEL FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

No apology for the door-slamming incident. That might have helped your cause, Jewel.

23. R.B. FROM NEW MEXICO (1922)

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The Carlsbad Current, Dec. 15, 1922

R.B. is very thoughtful to provide such specific instructions; otherwise, Santa might get confused.

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