Rotary History

By Jim Bray

Rotary is a worldwide organization of business and professional leaders that provides humanitarian service, encourages high ethical standards in all vocations, and helps build goodwill and peace in the world. As signified by the motto Service Above Self, Rotary’s main objective is service – in the community, in the workplace, and throughout the world.

The world’s first service club, the Rotary Club of Chicago, Illinois, was formed on Feb. 23, 1905 by Paul P. Harris, an attorney who wished to recapture, in a professional club, the same friendly spirit he had felt in the small towns of his youth.

The name “Rotary” is derived from the early practice of rotating meetings among members’ offices. Rotary’s popularity spread throughout the United States in the decade that followed; clubs were chartered from San Francisco to New York. By 1921, Rotary clubs had been formed on six continents, and the organization adopted the name Rotary International a year later.

As Rotary grew, its mission expanded beyond serving the professional and social interests of club members. Rotarians began pooling their resources and contributing their talents to help serve communities in need.

During and after World War II, Rotarians became increasingly involved in promoting international understanding. In 1945, 49 Rotary members served in 29 delegations to the United Nations Charter Conference. Rotary still actively participates in United Nations conferences by sending observers to major meetings and promoting the United Nations in Rotary publications. Rotary International’s relationship with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) dates back to a 1943 London Rotary conference that promoted international cultural and educational exchanges. Attended by ministers of education and observers from around the world, and chaired by a past president of Rotary International, the conference was an impetus to the establishment of UNESCO in 1946.

An endowment fund, set up by Rotarians in 1917 for “doing good in the world,” became a not-for-profit corporation known as the Rotary Foundation in 1928. Upon the death of Paul Harris in 1947, an outpouring of Rotarian donations made in his honor, totaling $2 million, launched the foundation’s first program – graduate fellowships, now called Ambassadorial Scholarships. Since the first donation of $26.50 in 1917, the Foundation has received contribution totaling more than $1 billion.

In 1985, Rotary made a historic commitment to immunize all of the world’s children against polio. Working in partnership with nongovernmental organizations and national governments thorough its PolioPlus program, Rotary is the largest private-sector contributor to the global polio eradication campaign. Rotarians have mobilized hundreds of thousands of PolioPlus volunteers and have immunized more than on billion children worldwide.

After 20 years of hard work, Rotary and its partners are on the brink of eradicating polio, but a strong push is needed now to end the dreaded disease once and for all. To that purpose, Rotary is currently in the process of working to raise $200 million to match $355 million in challenge grants received from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The resulting $555 million will directly support immunization campaigns in developing countries, where polio continues to infect and paralyze children, robbing them of their futures and compounding the hardships faced by their families.

Today, 1.2 million Rotarians belong to more than 33,000 Rotary clubs in more than 200 countries and geographical areas. Such strong support, along with Rotarian involvement worldwide, ensures a secure future for Rotary as it continues its vital work for international understanding and world peace along with strong community service on the local level.

Rotary of Santa Maria

Rotary Milestones

First Rotary club organized in Chicago, Illinois, USA
Second club formed in San Francisco, California, USA
First Rotary convention held in Chicago, Illinois, USA
The Rotary Club of Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, becomes the first club outside the United States to be officially chartered. (The club was formed in 1910.)
Endowment fund, forerunner of The Rotary Foundation, established
4-Way Test formulated by Chicago Rotarian Herbert J. Taylor
Forty-nine Rotarians help draft United Nations Charter in San Francisco
Rotary founder Paul Harris dies; first 18 Rotary Foundation scholarships granted
First Interact club formed in Melbourne, Florida, USA
Rotary Foundation launches Matching Grants and Group Study Exchange programs
Rotary announces PolioPlus program to immunize all the children of the world against polio
Council on Legislation opens Rotary membership to women worldwide; Rotary clubs chartered in Budapest, Hungary, and Warsaw, Poland, for first time in almost 50 years
Rotary Club of Moscow chartered first club in Soviet Union
Preserve Planet Earth program inspires some 2,000 Rotary-sponsored environmental projects
Western Hemisphere declared polio-free
Rotary Centers for International Studies in Peace and Conflict Resolution established
Western Pacific declared polio-free
30,000th Rotary club chartered
Europe declared polio-free; first class of 70 Rotary Peace Scholars begin study
Rotarians raise more than US$118 million to support the final stages of polio eradication
Rotary International’s largest convention with 45,381 attendees, held in Osaka, Japan
Rotary celebrates its 100th anniversary at the centennial convention in Chicago. Clubs commemorate the centennial by launching hundreds of community service projects and contributing thousands of volunteer hours.
Only four countries remain polio-endemic: Afghanistan, India, Nigeria, and Pakistan. Polio cases worldwide have dropped by 99 percent since 1985.
The Rotary Foundation celebrates the millionth Paul Harris Fellow by recognizing 34 individuals – one from each Rotary zone. The donors receive plaques and certificates honoring their contributions.
Rotary officially launches its effort to match a US$100 million challenge grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to help eradicate polio.
In 2009, Rotary receives another grant of $255 million from the Gates Foundation and launches Rotary’s US $200 Million Challenge to match a portion of the grants and further support efforts to End Polio Now. Rotary celebrates the 100th Rotary International Convention in Birmingham, England. The event welcomes guest speakers Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, actress and UNICEF goodwill ambassador Mia Farrow, and renowned primatologist and humanitarian Dr. Jane Goodall.