Why Is The Medical Symbol for First Aid a Red Cross?

Red Cross

As you may have noticed, most medical establishments throughout the world like hospitals, clinics, and ambulance services, use a red cross on a white background or a white cross on a green background as universal symbols for first aid. The symbol originated in Italy during the War of Italian Unification, a war that claimed the lives of countless soldiers and civilians on all sides involved in the conflict.

It was Henry Dunant, a Swiss citizen who while on a private trip through the town of Solferino on June 24, 1859, saw the aftermath of the carnage that involved more than 45,000 soldiers left abandoned on the battlefield, started writing an insightful book proposing an improved way of assisting war victims. Less than three years later, in 1862, the book titled ‘A Memory of Solferino’ was published, a book that would make history.

The book put forward two major proposals – that volunteer groups should be gathered during peacetime in every country to take care of casualties during wartime and that countries should agree to protect these first aid volunteers along with the wounded present on the battlefield at all times. The first proposal stands at the core of the National Societies that nowadays exist in 183 countries while the second proposal is widely considered to be the origin of the Geneva Conventions.

Just one year later, in 1863, a five-member committee got together to study Dunant’s proposals, with the intent to adopt a single universal symbol for healthcare providers, be they doctors, medics, or volunteers. Those wearing this distinctive symbol would provide first aid on the battlefield while being kept out of harm’s way by all parties involved in the conflict, based on the universal respect that first aid providers would be shown.

The same year on October 26, delegates from 14 governments attended the first International Conference, a conference during which ten resolutions were adopted with the purpose of establishing relief societies that would tend to wounded soldiers on the battlefield. During that conference, participating delegates also agreed on the Red Cross symbol to represent these relief societies, a symbol that will later become the emblem for the International Red Cross.

As you may already know, the Red Cross is the symbol of all Red cross organizations, groups that provide humanitarian and medical aid worldwide, even in war zones. The easily-recognizable symbol is to show combatants that those who wear it are not military targets and should therefore not be engaged. Over time, this distinctive symbol was adopted by most healthcare professionals worldwide, especially the groups tasked with providing first aid.

During the Russo-Turkish War of 1877-1878, however, the Ottoman Empire used not the standardized red cross banner to signify first aid providers on the battlefield, but the red crescent. They argued that although they respected the general idea behind it, the symbol of a cross would prove offensive to Muslim soldiers. This is precisely why after the First World War, a Diplomatic Conference was called to revise the existing Geneva Conventions involving the red cross symbol.

It would be agreed upon during the conference that Turkey, Persia, and Egypt would use the red crescent and the red lion as recognized symbols, but limited the use of these symbols to just these three countries alone. Nowadays, 151 National Societies use the red cross symbol and 32 National Societies use the red crescent. In 2005, the Diplomatic Conference in Geneva adopted Protocol III to the Geneva Conventions, adding the red crystal to the cross and crescent, to encourage countries that would find it hard to adopt either the red cross or the crescent to join the Movement as full members.

The original International Committee of the Red Cross was founded in 1963 in Geneva, Switzerland, by Henry Dunant and Gustave Moynier. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, however, was founded in 1919 and it currently has more than 97 million volunteers, members and staff worldwide. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that their symbol would so widely be accepted by most healthcare professionals throughout the world.

There you have it, the reason why most healthcare organizations throughout the developed world use a red cross as a universal symbol for first aid is because of the Red Cross and the Geneva Conventions. As mentioned, however, it would be fair to expect countries that do not have a Christian majority to use other symbols than the cross.

  • Pierre

    I have no doubt on the right intention of the author, but this article is strongly misleading about the right use of the Red Cross emblem. In particular, this statement:
    “As you may already know, the Red Cross is the symbol of all Red cross organizations, groups that provide humanitarian and medical aid worldwide, even in war zones.” is inaccurate: the Red Cross (or Red Crescent) emblem can only be used by the members of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement, i.e.: the ICRC , the IFRC and the national societies, as well as the armed forces to protect their vehicles, compound, etc. dedicated exclusively to the assistance to the wounded. It is therefore wrong to pretend that any hospital is supposed to use it (only hospital allowed by the ICRC or the National Society and providing that health cares are free).
    See also: https://www.icrc.org/en/document/emblems, http://www.redcross.org.au/guide-to-emblem-use.aspx; https://ihl-databases.icrc.org/customary-ihl/eng/docs/v2_rul_rule59