Jean Henry Dunant (May 8, 1828-October 30, 1910) was born into a prosperous family but died in a sanatorium. During his middle age he juxtaposed fame with total disregard and success in business with insolvency. When he grew old he was virtually exiled from the Genevan society of which he had once been an embellishment of and died alone, leaving a bitter testament. His passionate humanitarianism was the one constant in his life, and the Red Cross his existent memorial.
The Geneva household into which Henry Dunant was born was religious, humanitarian, and civic-minded. In the first part of his life Dunant engaged quite seriously in religious activities and for a while in full-time work as a representative of the Young Men’s Christian Association, traveling in France, Belgium, and Holland.
When he was twenty-six, Dunant entered the business world as a representative of the Compagnie genevoise des Colonies de Setif in North Africa and Sicily. In 1858 he published his first book An Account of the Regency in Tunis, made up for the most part of travel observations but containing a remarkable chapter, a long one, which he published separately in 1863, entitled L’Esclavage chez les musulmans et aux États-Unis d’Amérique (Slavery among the Mohammedans and in the United States of America).
Having served his commercial apprenticeship, Dunant devised a daring financial scheme where he resolved to make himself president of the Financial and Industrial Company of Mons-Gémila Mills in Algeria to exploit a large area of land. Needing water rights, he resolved to take his plea directly to Emperor Napoleon III. Undeterred by the fact that Napoleon was in the field directing the French armies who, with the Italians, were striving to drive the Austrians out of Italy, Dunant made his way to Napoleon’s headquarters near the northern Italian town of Solferino. He arrived there in time to witness, and to participate in the aftermath of, one of the bloodiest battles of the nineteenth century. His awareness and conscience honed, he published in 1862 a small book Un Souvenir de Solférino (A Memory of Solferino), destined to make him famous.
Dunant had transformed a personal idea into an international treaty. But his work was not finished. He approved the efforts to extend the scope of the Red Cross to cover naval personnel in wartime, and in peacetime to alleviate the hardships caused by natural catastrophes. In 1866 he wrote a brochure called the Universal and International Society for the Revival of the Orient, setting forth a plan to create a neutral colony in Palestine.
The eight years from 1867 to 1875 proved to be a sharp contrast to those of 1859-1867. In 1867 Dunant was bankrupt. The water rights had not been granted, the company had been mismanaged in North Africa, and Dunant himself had been concentrating his attention on humanitarian pursuits, not on business ventures. Within a few years he was living at the level of beggar. There were times when he dined on bread crusts, blackened his coat with ink, whitened his collar with chalk and slept out in the open.
For the next twenty years, from 1875 to 1895, Dunant disappeared into solitude. After brief intervals at various places, he settled in Heiden, a small Swiss village. Later on, Dunant was moved in 1892 to the hospital at Heiden. And here, in Room 12, he spent the remaining eighteen years of his life. However, he was not an unknown at that time. After 1895, he was once again rediscovered by the people of the world and they heaped prizes and awards upon him including the Nobel Peace Prize which he was awarded on December 10, 1901.
Despite the prizes and the honors, Dunant did not move from Room 12. Upon his death, there was no funeral ceremony. According to his wishes he was just carried over to his grave are buried.
Dunant had not spent any of the prize monies he had received. He donated some of the amount to those who had cared for him in the village hospital, endowed a free bed that was to be available to the sick among the poorest people in the village, and left the remainder to charitable enterprises in Norway and Switzerland.