UNE historian to write centenary history of Red Cross

Published 28 September 2010

redcrossRed Cross has commissioned the social historian Melanie Oppenheimer to write a history of the organisation to be published in time for its centenary celebrations in 2014.

The Australian Branch of Red Cross was established in 1914 by the wife of the Governor General, Lady Helen Munro Ferguson, who promptly turned the ballroom of Government House into a workshop for Red Cross relief efforts during World War I.

Dr Oppenheimer, who is an Associate Professor in the School of Humanities at the University of New England, said she had been fascinated by Red Cross ever since researching her grandmother’s experiences as a Red Cross volunteer during the repatriation of prisoners from Asia at the end of World War II. “The work of Red Cross in the social rehabilitation of ex-servicemen after the two world wars is a story we tend to forget,” she said.

The Chief Executive of Red Cross, Robert Tickner, said he hoped the book would provide a unique insight into the many generations of humanitarians whose lives had been touched by Red Cross.

“So many Australians have had a personal experience of Red Cross,” Dr Oppenheimer said, “from volunteers who helped send care packages to prisoners through two world wars, to people who have sought shelter in Red Cross refugee camps while escaping conflict and persecution in their country, to volunteers who leave their own damaged homes to care for people who are worse off when disasters like the Victorian bushfires strike.”

“The relationship of Red Cross to the development of social work in Australia is not as well known as it should be,” she said. “I’m honoured to be telling the story of generations of humanitarians and volunteers, and the contribution that this great organisation has made to civil society in Australia since 1914.

“The centenary history will show how Red Cross has adapted and changed over the years – from an organisation founded in time of war to its current activities in disaster management, international humanitarian law (particularly in relation to refugees) and the welfare of Indigenous communities.”

Dr Oppenheimer is the author of five books on volunteering and women in war – including Volunteering: Why we can’t survive without it (UNSW Press, Sydney, 2008) and Australian Women and War (Department of Veterans’ Affairs, Canberra, 2008). With the help of research assistants, she is currently conducting research in libraries in Sydney and Melbourne. “Then we’ll be travelling throughout the States and Territories,” she said. “We’ll literally be going everywhere. I want to find the best stories that I can.”

Red Cross is asking people who have a personal story to tell to go to the Red Cross Web site at www.redcross.org.au or send an e-mail to centenary2014@redcross.org.au.

THE PHOTOGRAPH displayed here shows Associate Professor Melanie Oppenheimer with two members of the NSW Youth Advisory Committee (YAC) of Red Cross – Steve Candiloro (left) and Akash Vaswani – during a recent visit of the YAC to UNE. It expands to include two other visiting committee members: Ishan Shrestha and Timothy Bayl.