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The founding

Signing of Médecins Sans Frontières' charter, in Paris, 1971. Caption
Signing of Médecins Sans Frontières' charter, in Paris, 1971.

An appeal for help

Amid the Parisian upheavals of May 1968, a group of young doctors decided to go and help victims of wars and major disasters. This new brand of humanitarianism would reinvent the concept of emergency aid. They were to become Médecins Sans Frontières, or Doctors Without Borders – MSF.

After the revolt of May '68 burst on to their black and white TV screens, the French public soon saw other, more frightening images.

For the first time, television broadcasted scenes of children dying from hunger in remote corners of the world.

In southern Nigeria, the province of Biafra had seceded. This miniscule territory was surrounded by the Nigerian army and the Biafran people were decimated by famine.

The French Red Cross issued an appeal for volunteers.

Medics in emergencies

For a number of years, Max Recamier and Pascal Greletty-Bosviel – volunteer doctors with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Geneva – had been regularly intervening in armed conflicts.

"Contrary to popular belief the Red Cross is not a medical organisation at all," says Max Recamier. "Pascal and myself were the only two doctors they knew because of our previous mission in Yemen, so they asked us to find some doctors for the ICRC.

"The first one to volunteer was Bernard Kouchner, who was much younger than I was; he was just finishing his studies and hadn't even finished his thesis yet, but he volunteered to go over there."

A team of six set off on an ICRC assignment to Biafra: two doctors – Max Recamier and Bernard Kouchner – as well as two clinicians and two nurses.

Being thrown into such a bloody conflict was a real shock for these fledgling doctors, who found themselves having to provide war surgery in hospitals that were regularly targeted by the Nigerian armed forces.

Witnesses

Recamier and Kouchner believed the world needed to know about the events they were witnessing: civilians being murdered and starved by blockading forces.

They openly criticised the Nigerian government and the Red Cross for their seemingly complicit behavior.

In the following three years, other doctors began to speak up. They began to lay the foundations for a new and questioning form of humanitarianism that would ignore political or religious boundaries and prioritise the welfare of those suffering.

It’s simple really: go where the patients are. It seems obvious, but at the time it was revolutionary.

Bernard Kouchner
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MSF founder

'A new medicine'

In 1971, Raymond Borel and Philippe Bernier, journalists from the medical review Tonus issued an appeal to establish a band of doctors to help people suffering in the midst and wake of major disasters.

Recamier and Kouchner, who had been attempting to start an emergency medical-response group themselves, jumped at the chance. 

“In the back of our minds was the fact that we’d already done this and we wanted to do it again,” says Bernard Kouchner.

“We wanted to ensure sufficient knowledge of this new type of medicine: war surgery, triage medicine, public health, education, etcetera.

“It’s simple really: go where the patients are. It seems obvious, but at the time it was a revolutionary concept because borders got in the way. It’s no coincidence that we called it ‘Médecins Sans Frontières.’”