Rotary’s Early History
The first Rotary Club was formed when attorney Paul Harris called together three business acquaintances in Chicago, at Gustave Loehr's office on February 23, 1905. In addition to Harris and Loehr (a mining engineer), Silvester Schiele (a coal merchant), and Hiram Shorey (a tailor) were the other two who attended this first meeting.
The members chose the name Rotary because initially they rotated weekly club meetings to each other's offices. They also sought business acquaintances to represent different vocations-the foundation of Rotary’s classification principle.
The next four Rotary Clubs were organized in cities in the western United States, beginning with San Francisco, then Oakland, Los Angeles, and Seattle. The National Association of Rotary Clubs in America was formed in 1910. On February 22, 1911, the first organizational meeting of the Rotary Club Dublin was held in Dublin, Ireland. In April 1912, Rotary chartered a club in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, marking the first establishment of an American-style service club outside the United States. To reflect the addition of a club outside of the United States, the name was changed to the International Association of Rotary Clubs in 1912.
In August 1912, the Rotary Club of London received its charter from the Association, marking the first acknowledged Rotary club outside North America. It later became known that the Dublin club in Ireland was organized before the London club, but the Dublin club did not receive its charter until after the London club was chartered.
By World War I, Rotary in Britain increased from 9 to 22 clubs, and early clubs in other nations included those in Cuba in 1916, Philippines in 1919 and India in 1920. The Rotary Club of Charlotte was chartered on December 1, 1916.
In 1922, the name was changed to Rotary International. By July 1925, Rotary had grown to more than 2,000 clubs and an estimated 108,000 members on six continents.
Rotary and the Easter Seals Society
After losing a son to a streetcar accident in 1908, Rotarian Edgar Allen of the Rotary Club of Elyria, OH became interested in serving crippled children. The result was the 1915 opening of the Gates Hospital for Crippled Children in Elyria. He first solicited building funds from his Rotary Club, then his Rotary District, then the National Association of Rotary Clubs in America. Allen was the first President of the Ohio Society for Crippled Children and the National Crippled Children’s Society (US).
Allen led the organization of the International Society for Crippled Children and was its President from its inception until 1934. He became fondly known as “Daddy” Allen. Rotary Founder Paul Harris and numerous Rotary District Governors also served the organizations for crippled children.
In 1922 Rotary International passed a resolution encouraging Rotary Clubs throughout the world to take on crippled children’s work. RI acted as a clearinghouse for information while individual clubs were to inaugurate their own projects. These projects rapidly became surveys, clinics, publicity, lobbying and enlisting hospitals and surgeons to join the crusade. In fact, the very first donation by the Rotary Foundation was awarded to the Crippled Children’s Society in 1929.
Locally, the Crippled Children’s Clinic was established under the auspices of the Mecklenburg County Board of Health (headed pro bono by Dr. Alonzo Myers, a member of the Rotary Club of Charlotte).
A 1934 fund raising program, the sale of seals (stamps), combined the needs of the handicapped with the Easter season. This began the transition for the society to become The Easter Seal Society.
(It must be pointed out that Rotary International was never officially connected to any crippled children’s society. The position of RI was to encourage and help each autonomous Rotary Club pursue projects, which helped the handicapped. In many areas of the country, significant work was also done through Kiwanis, woman’s organizations, veteran’s groups, churches, and fraternal organizations).
Rotary and the United Nations
The tragic impact of two World Wars within the forty-year life-span of Rotary had directed the thoughts of many leaders toward the age-old problem of discovering some method by which international disputes might be settled without resort to bloodshed. Symptomatic of this interest, in 1942, Rotary clubs from 21 nations organized a conference in London where ministers of education developed ideas for advancing education, science and culture across nations. This meeting was the seed of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization).
Rotary International issued, under the title of Essentials for an Enduring World Order, two booklets setting forth articles interpreting the Dumbarton Oaks Proposals. The principal objective was to stimulate discussion by Rotarians everywhere on the newly proposed world organization. Two pamphlets entitled Pattern for San Francisco and The Bretton Woods Proposals also were sent to all clubs, with the result that the proposals were discussed worldwide.
At the organizing conference of the United Nations held in San Francisco in 1945, the United States delegation invited Rotary International to appoint consultants.
Additionally, 49 Rotarians helped draft the UN charter, with resulting influence on the humane aspects of the Charter, (in particular, framing the provisions for the Economic and Social Council). As the UN turned into an ideological battleground, Rotary’s direct participation decreased in keeping with its policy against political involvement.
Rotary International was granted consultative status, and through the years prominent Rotarians have served as observers at various important meetings. Even today, Rotary holds the highest consultative status offered to a non-governmental organization by the UN’s Economic and Social Council, which oversees many specialized UN agencies. Rotary maintains and furthers its relationship with a number of UN bodies, programs, commissions and agencies. The annual Rotary Day at the UN is usually in November.
Rotary Involvement in Polio Eradication
In the 1950’s and 60’s, virtually every person knew someone in their family or circle of friends who had polio. In the early 1950s, there were annually over 55,000 cases of polio in the United States. Worldwide there were perhaps 500,000 cases of polio. Of that number 50,000 children a year would die from polio and thousands more would be crippled, paralyzed or suffer lifelong disabilities.
What started as a one-time polio immunization day in the Philippines in 1978, was adopted by RI in 1982, became Polio Plus in 1985, partnered with the World Health Organization, UNICEF and the CDC in 1987, supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation starting in 2012, and is now considered one of Rotary’s greatest humanitarian programs.
In 1988, polio was in 125 nations and it was estimated that there were 350,000 cases of polio in the world every year. Rotary’s first big immunization day was in Mexico-13 million children. Then Central America and South America. One nation after another became “polio free”.
Rotary Clubs became Polio Plus Partners to raise funds for National Immunization Days. The Partners purchased ice boxes, colorful vests, caps, leaflets, street banners and many other items needed to mobilize whole nations to immunize their children. Local Rotarians managed logistics, recruited volunteers and managed the immunization process.
One day in India, over 125 million children received the two drops of polio vaccine. Rotarians have gone to some of the most poverty stricken areas of the Philippines, Ethiopia, Turkey and other nations to assist in National Immunization Days. The project is an amazing and complicated one. Rotarians and health workers have to go to the most remote areas of the world by canoe, camels, elephants, horseback, motorbikes, and every other conceivable vehicle to reach all the world’s children.
Even in China, Laos, Vietnam, Cuba, Myanmar and other areas where there is no Rotary, we worked freely to distribute the vaccine. Very simply, Rotary is often accepted where no other organization is allowed.
Over 99% of the children of the world have received the polio vaccine. In 2017 polio can be found in only 3 nations, not the 125 countries when we started. Only Nigeria, Pakistan and Afghanistan persist. Over 2½ billion children have received Rotary’s polio vaccine-and they are now living a life without the fear of paralysis and death from polio. We are on the verge of eradicating this dreaded disease.