In the big city, four friends wanted to revive the friendship and mutual aid they had known in their small hometowns. On 23 February 1905, Paul Harris, a young lawyer at the time, and three of his friends (a tailor, a coal dealer and a mining engineer) gathered in a small office in Chicago.
The goal of the first Rotary Club was very simple indeed: friendship and exchange of professional experience among businessmen. The new Club quickly gained notoriety and within a short time, other businessmen joined in. The name “Rotary” was chosen during one of the first meetings because the members decided to hold gatherings in the place of business of each member and “rotate” the location with each meeting. At the end of 1905, the Rotary Club Chicago had already 30 members. Three years later, a second club was formed in San Francisco (California). The following year saw the creation of three additional clubs on the West Coast of the United States of America and one more in New-York. As a rule of thumb, each profession could only be represented by one single member.
As Rotary develops, its object evolves from mutual professional aid towards a more generous concept of service to others and to society. One of the first public service projects was the building of public restrooms nearby Chicago’s City Hall and the distribution of food aid to the most deprived.
In 1913, the 50 Rotary Clubs that existed at the time raised USD 25,000 to help the victims of the floods which devastated 2 states of the Midwest of the United States.
The first Rotary Convention took place in August 1910 in The Congress Hotel in Chicago. The National Association of Rotary Clubs (16 Clubs) was then established under the presidency of Paul Harris. In 1912, he was elected president emeritus of Rotary. In 1912, Rotary expands beyond its US borders and becomes an “international” organization with the creation of a Canadian club in Winnipeg and a Club in the United Kingdom. The name “Rotary International” was adopted in 1922.
Ten years later, the size of Rotary was such (200 Clubs and more than 20,000 members) that it was imperative to create Districts. During the second Rotary decade, branch offices were opened all over the world: South America, Central America, India, Cuba, Europe, the Philippines, Australia, New-Zealand and South Africa.
The spirit of service grew as Rotary expanded. During World War I, assistance takes on other forms: in the United States, war aid and fundraising, elsewhere, emergency assistance. After World War II, many Clubs – which had to be dissolved as a consequence of the war – if you will, came back to life. Rotary Clubs in Switzerland and elsewhere helped refugees and war victims.
This pursuit of peace drives 49 Rotarians to participate in the United Nations meeting of 1945 in San Francisco, during which the Charter of the United Nations was drawn up.
The Rotary Foundation of Rotary International finances most of Rotary aid operations for better education, better international understanding and a more peaceful world. It was set up in 1917 and relies entirely on donations. In 1928, it is renamed “The Rotary Foundation”. In 1947, upon the death of Paul Harris, a new era opened for The Rotary Foundation as countless memorial gifts poured in to honour the founder of Rotary.
In 1947, 18 young men from 11 countries were awarded the first Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarships. It was in fact the first programme, called “Rotary Foundation Fellowships for Advance Study”.
Today this programme offers each year the opportunity to more or less 1,100 students to study abroad.
Today, the Rotary Foundation also supports other humanitarian and cultural programmes such as “Matching Grants”, District grants, individual grants, group study exchange, Rotary Centres for international studies.
The largest Rotary project dates back to 1985 and is called PolioPlus. It was launched to eradicate polio worldwide.
In 2005, Rotary Clubs from all over the world will have raised 500 million USD, more than double the amount initially required for this vaccination campaign.
September 1994 was definitely a memorable moment in this respect. There was every indication that the American continent was once and for all released from this crippling disease.
Since 1989, women are allowed to join Rotary Clubs. The RI constitutional change was made at the 1989 Council on Legislation, with a vote to eliminate the “male only” provision for all of Rotary.
Today, 1,217,037 Rotarians (on 31 January 2009), spread over 33,135 Clubs (on 31 January 2009), are part of Rotary (in 200 countries and geographical areas).
Currently, Rotary International encourages its Clubs to be committed to the fight against hunger, illiteracy and drugs, and to contribute to the protection of the environment, health, young and elderly people. Under the motto “Service Above Self”, Rotary International – in accordance with the words of Paul Harris – wants to promote tolerance and foster friendships between people of goodwill for the sake of world peace.