Flinders historian tells Red Cross story

History Professor Melanie Oppenheimer has just published a book on the history of Australian Red Cross.
Flinders historian Professor Melanie Oppenheimer has just published a book on the history of Australian Red Cross.

“Whether it’s a family who has lost their home in a bushfire or flood, or a cancer patient needing a blood transfusion; Australian Red Cross is always there.”

Flinders University historian Professor Melanie Oppenheimer speaks with infectious, bubbly energy as she flicks through the pages of the glossy new book she’s just written on Australian Red Cross.

After all, each colourful page of imagery and words reflects her world for the past five years; of painstakingly combing archives all over the country, interviewing scores of people and rising up to the immense challenge of producing a seamless, interesting and engaging history of Red Cross that rings true to the organisation and its members.

But when she reflects on the true meaning of Red Cross, she softens, looking out of her office window with misty eyes.

“Red Cross is a symbol of hope – their motto for the centenary is ‘people helping people’ and as a humanitarian organisation they offer hope to some of the most vulnerable and most desperate people, both locally and globally,” she says.

“It would be hard to find someone whose life hasn’t been touched by Red Cross in some way; either through a blood transfusion, emergency assistance, through their vast community programs or as a volunteer or staff member.”

Having researched Australia’s largest volunteer organisation for two decades, Professor Oppenheimer was commissioned by Australian Red Cross in 2009 to write the organisation’s 100-year history in the lead up to its official centenary celebrations this month.

A stand out among her book collection – The Power of Humanity: 100 Years of the Australian Red Cross 1914 to 2014 – will be launched tomorrow (Tuesday, August 12) by Governor-General Sir Peter Cosgrove at Government House in Canberra, with events to follow in every capital city, including a Town Hall reception hosted by Adelaide Lord Mayor Stephen Yarwood on Thursday (August 14).

Published by HarperCollins, the book tells the narrative of Australian Red Cross from its inception at the outbreak of World War I through to the rise of the organisation in international aid efforts in modern times.

The Power of Humanity recognises the role of individual branches – including the seven local branches that have achieved an impressive 100 years of continuous service in South Australia – and celebrates the prolific part that women have played throughout the organisation’s history.

“There were more than 400,000 members at its peak in World War II and they were predominantly women, so the role of women in Red Cross is a very important theme that runs right through the book,” Professor Oppenheimer, an official Australian Red Cross Ambassador, says.

“I’ve tried to be true to the essence of the organisation, how it’s shifted and changed over time and how it’s evolved from a voluntary service that formed directly as a result of World War I to a modern, forward-thinking organisation working both nationally and internationally.

“The thing that makes Red Cross so special is that it has a global dimension – as members meet in branches all over Australia, delegates are also operating in war zones and disaster areas all over the world.

“It’s one of the biggest, oldest and most respected voluntary organisations of our time and it continues to play an important role in Australia and the world today.”

While it’s been “a long hard slog” to compile the organisation’s history, Professor Oppenheimer says she hopes she’s done justice to Red Cross and its members.

“The book has been fraught with difficulties owing to the sheer volume of material – what to include, what not to include.

“To create a narrative that can take the reader through from 1914 to today in a way that’s interesting and makes sense is incredibly difficult.

“My hope is that a volunteer from the Burra branch, or from anywhere in Australia or overseas, will be able to see where their role fits within the broader context of the organisation.

“And for readers who aren’t so familiar with Red Cross, I hope they can get a sense of both the organisation and of Australia’s history.

“After all, the history of the Red Cross is Australia’s history – they have carried us through some of the most difficult times and their legacy continues to live on.”

The Power of Humanity: 100 Years of the Australian Red Cross 1914 to 2014 is available in bookstores and through Red Cross from August 12. To order a copy, email centenary@redcross.org.au or visit the website.

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