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Australian Red Cross Marks 100 Years

31 July 2014 at 10:56 am
Lina Caneva
In celebration of its 100th year, the Australian Red Cross has released a comprehensive retelling of its history in the book - The Power of Humanity, 100 years of Australian Red Cross 1914-2014, as Freyla Ferguson reports.

Lina Caneva | 31 July 2014 at 10:56 am


Australian Red Cross Marks 100 Years
31 July 2014 at 10:56 am

In celebration of its 100th year, the Australian Red Cross has released a comprehensive retelling of its history in the book – The Power of Humanity, 100 years of Australian Red Cross 1914-2014 as Freyla Ferguson reports.

The Power of Humanity, 100 years of Australian Red Cross 1914-2014 by Melanie Oppenheimer.

Researched and written by Flinders University Professor of History, Melanie Oppenheimer, the book covers the last 100 years, from its establishment nine days after World War I on August 13, 1914, all the way to its current history – as an organisation that has managed to combine eight state and territory organisations into one national framework.

Already armed with more than 25 years of research into the Australian Red Cross, Dr Oppenheimer was commissioned to take on the task of writing its history five years ago.

“I thought I knew it well,” Dr Oppenheimer said. “And I thought I had something to say.

“But an organisation like the Red Cross is a large multi-faceted organisation. How do you actually pull 100 years together?”

Dr Oppenheimer said she took a chronological approach – and within that focussed on the broader themes of the organisation.

“It started out during the outbreak of WWI,” she said.

“But why was it actually then – when Red Cross started 50 years earlier in Switzerland and Europe? Why did it take so long to start in Australia?

“Australians knew quite a bit about the Red Cross. And a lot of different groups tried to start branches in 1899 during the Boer War – but they didn’t last.”

Dr Oppenheimer said it was the arrival of Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, the wife of Australia’s sixth Governor-General Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, which sparked the establishment of the Red Cross Movement in Australia.

“The outbreak of WWI and the arrival of Helen Munro Ferguson, who came from Scotland, marked the beginnings of the Red Cross in Australia,” she said.

“Lady Helen had a great cultural understanding of Red Cross.”

Australian Red Cross historical poster.

Lady Helen was the first of many women that, despite the Australian Red Cross being predominantly run by men, drove the movement throughout the century.

Dr Oppenheimer said one of the revelations of her research was that the Henry Dunant Medal – the highest honour within the Red Cross movement – was an Australian idea put forward by a woman – Lady Galleghan (Persia Porter).

According to Dr Oppenheimer, Lady Galleghan was a “vigorous and demanding leader” of the Voluntary Aid Detachments movement in NSW, and in late 1952 suggested that a Henry Dunant medal be created to commemorate the centenary of the Red Cross movement.

However despite Geneva agreeing to the idea, the Australian design of the medal was rejected.

“The Red Cross movement is a very feminine one even though it’s run by men,” Dr Oppenheimer said.

Dr Oppenheimer said the Australian Red Cross faced its biggest challenge however, in the 1980s, during the AIDS epidemic.

“Australian Red Cross faced perhaps its toughest test yet in the 1980s: the worst global public health catastrophe of the late twentieth century,” she writes in the book.

“The acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic created an atmosphere of fear and hysteria and Red Cross blood services were caught up in the controversy.

“The Red Cross reputation was at risk, the threat of litigation hung over the leadership’s heads – and yet this crisis ultimately led to fundamental and lasting organisational reform.”

What this led to, Dr Oppenheimer said, was the Red Cross Blood Service branching away from the Red Cross in 1996.

“[Former Australian Red Cross Secretary General Jim] Carlton views the establishment of the national Australian Red Cross Blood Service in 1996 as the crowning achievement of his tenure,” Dr Oppenheimer writes.

“He had the support of the Victorian division, which was an early advocate of a national blood service.

“After a couple of state-based reviews and one by the Australian health ministers advisory committee, Jim Carlton, ably supported by Ron Green and others, pushed through a series of reforms to enable the creation of a national blood organisation.”

Dr Oppenheimer said as the Australian Red Cross movement moved towards the modern age it was important for the organisation to reinvent itself.

“The change in rural and regional Australia in terms of demography – with more people living in urban areas – saw the decline in Red Cross,” she said.

“They have had to reinvent themselves.

“There’s been so much more organisations and competition develop in Australia and Red Cross has had to adapt and change.”

She said the changes in governance within the Australian Red Cross – particularly the development of a national framework – has been important for its longevity.

She said current Chief Executive Officer Robert Tickner played a big part in the process.

Dr Oppenheimer said the Australian Red Cross should be commended on going down the path of recording its history in print.

“A lot of organisations don’t think their history is important enough,” she said.

“The Australian Red Cross is one of the few organisations that has actually gone out and found a historian and committed to a project through an independent lens, written for the general public but is rigorous and comprehensive.”

Australian Red Cross CEO Robert Tickner said 100 years ago Australia joined the international Red Cross movement to serve the humanitarian needs of a nation at war.

“We have flourished in peacetime to become one of the nation's largest, most trusted humanitarian organisations which operates at all times with the principles of impartiality and neutrality, and an absolute focus on improving the lives of vulnerable people,” he said.

“Throughout our Centenary year we are thanking all Australians for their contributions to the first 100 years of Red Cross, and building on our strengths, our people, to ensure we continue serving the Australian community for the next 100 years.”

For more information on the Australian Red Cross Centenary, click here.

The Power of Humanity, 100 years of Australian Red Cross 1914-2014, will be available to purchase online. To find out more, click here.

Lina Caneva  |  Editor  |  @ProBonoNews

Lina Caneva has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She was the editor of Pro Bono Australia News from when it was founded in 2000 until 2018.


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