Top 5 Histories of National Red Cross Societies in the English-Speaking West
~ as recommended by Sarah Glassford, September 2021 ~
The history of international-level Red Cross activity received scholarly attention beginning in the last decades of the 20th century, but national Red Cross societies long remained the preserve of celebratory tributes written by amateurs and enthusiasts. Only in the last decade have scholarly histories of national-level Red Cross societies begun to appear, largely focused on countries in the English-speaking West where the movement first took root. These histories shed light on the history of humanitarianism at every level, from the local to the global, linking grassroots volunteers fundraising at home to those suffering from conflict, disaster, poverty, and ill-health around the world.
For my money, there are the currently five “essential reads” in this growing field. Each one is based on extensive archival research, is written in English about a predominantly English-speaking country, and the resulting book is “not a hagiography but, rather, a fair-minded and scholarly addition.”[i] Collectively they offer opportunities to compare and contrast the implementation of a transnational ideology across a variety of national contexts and time periods. As more studies – ideally about countries not formerly part of the British empire – appear, the opportunities for such cross-cultural and cross-national comparisons will only increase.
Here are my (current) top 5 essential reads, in order of publication:
1. Moser Jones, Marian. The American Red Cross from Clara Barton to the New Deal. Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012.
Moser Jones, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Health, channels her interest in the social history and ethics of institutional benevolence into this study of the founding years of the American Red Cross. This study offers an exhaustively detailed examination of the ARC’s wide-ranging humanitarian activities at home and abroad, alongside its tumultuous internal politics.
2. Irwin, Julia F. Making the World Safe: The American Red Cross and a Nation’s Humanitarian Awakening. Oxford University Press, 2013.
Irwin, a professor at the University of South Florida, brings to this study her expertise in US foreign relations. This work powerfully demonstrates how American Red Cross humanitarian aid overseas became a potent arm of the country’s larger foreign policy during the first half of the 20th century, and an outlet for some Americans’ desire to engage with the world.
3. Oppenheimer, Melanie. The Power of Humanity: 100 Years of Australian Red Cross, 1914-2014. HarperCollins, 2014.
Oppenheimer, a professor at Flinders University, was commissioned to write this anniversary volume by the Australian Red Cross, in which she brings to bear her expertise in the histories of gender, voluntary aid, and imperialism in times of war and peace. Despite the book’s overall celebratory theme, Oppenheimer examines the organization’s failures and limitations alongside its triumphs.
4. Tennant, Margaret, Across the Street, Across the World: A History of the Red Cross in New Zealand, 1915-2015. New Zealand Red Cross, 2015.
Tennant, a professor emerita at Massey University, was commissioned to write this anniversary volume by the New Zealand Red Cross. Her expertise as a historian of voluntary aid, social welfare, and women’s history results in a clear-eyed and fair assessment of the organization’s work at home and abroad.
5. Glassford, Sarah. Mobilizing Mercy: A History of the Canadian Red Cross. McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2017.
(Am I biased on this one? Of course!) My own book follows the evolution of the Canadian Red Cross as an organization and its humanitarian work at home and overseas over the better part of a century. My interest in the histories of women, children, wartime, volunteering, and health is evident throughout.
Bonus: Two More to Watch!
- Lahane, Shane. A History of the Irish Red Cross. Four Courts Press, 2019.
I discovered this one while looking up publication information for the books listed above and it sounds like another winner, blending social, cultural, health, and institutional history. Lahane is a graduate of University College Cork and has also published on the Great Famine in Ireland’s County Kerry.
- Cresswell, Rosemary. The History of the British Red Cross, 1870-2020: Health and Humanitarianism. Bloomsbury, forthcoming in 2023.
Another commissioned anniversary study, this one looks set to follow in the tradition of Oppenheimer and Tennant, placing institutional accomplishments and failures in larger national and international contexts. Cresswell is a research fellow at the University of Warwick who specializes in the history of health and humanitarianism in modern Britain.
Dr. Sarah Glassford is the Archivist for the Leddy Library Archives & Special Collections at the University of Windsor. She is also a social historian of modern Canada whose published works include Mobilizing Mercy: A History of the Canadian Red Cross (MQUP, 2017), as well as two essay collections co-edited with Amy Shaw: A Sisterhood of Suffering and Service: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the First World War (UBC Press, 2012), and Making the Best of It: Women and Girls of Canada and Newfoundland during the Second World War (UBC Press, 2020).
[i] Anne MacLellan, “We Are All Brothers,” Irish Literary Supplement, 40, 1 (Fall 2020): 18.