In May of 1968, French broadcasting companies televised scenes of children dying from hunger and war for the first time. As these frightening images made their way into family homes, a group of young doctors decided to go and help victims of wars, major disasters, and famine. This new kind of humanitarianism would change the concept of emergency aid, and lead to what is now known as Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders. Below is a timeline of the beginning of this world-changing organization.

  • December 1971: A group of 13 French doctors and journalists created an organization to expand access to medical care across national boundaries, regardless of race, religion, creed or political affiliation in response to the Biafra secession, or the Nigerian civil war.
  • December 1972: A group of 300 volunteers, including the 13 founders, acted as the first Medecins Sans Frontieres, or Doctors Without Borders, to deliver emergency medical aid quickly, effectively, and impartially to Managua—Nicaragua’s capital. Between 10,000 to 30,000 people were killed after most of the city was destroyed in an earthquake. While Doctors Without Borders is known today for its incredible speed and efficiency, the organization arrived days after the disaster.
  • September 1974: Within 3 years of its establishment, MSF had set up its first long-term medical relief mission in Honduras. Hurricane Fifi, the worst natural disaster to hit the area at that time and the 4th deadliest Atlantic hurricane on record, killed between 3,000–10,000 people.
  • 1975-1979: After South Vietnam had been defeated by North Vietnam, millions of Cambodians were forced to flee their homes and immigrate to Thailand. In response, MSF built its first large-scale refugee camp providing medical care and sanctuary. During these humanitarian attempts, MSF recognized weaknesses within the organization: doctors were left unsupported, supply chains were disrupted, and preparation was lacking. This time period served as a turning point for the organization.
  • 1976-1984: In war-torn Lebanon, Doctors Without Borders learned the complications of working in a war context. Patients with shrapnel and bullet injuries were brought in daily; broken limbs and burns were also common. However, materials and tools were insufficient and inadequate for the medical teams. There was no possibility to conduct extensive medical exams, no electric instruments, no ventilators or X-rays, and the ability to perform blood transfusions were limited. Throughout the Lebanese Civil War, MSF helped all soldiers alike, helping the organization to establish a reputation for neutrality and willingness to work under fire.
  • 1977-1979: Claude Malhuret was elected the new president of MSF followed by debates about the future of the organization. MSF begins moving beyond crisis aid to become a structured organization.
  • 1980: Claude Malhuret and Rony Brauman, the leadership of MSF, began the transformation of MSF which led to the establishment of offices in 28 countries with more than 30,000 people employed worldwide.

Since its beginnings, Doctors Without Borders (MSF) has treated over 100,000,000 patients. Maintaining its institutional and financial independence, Medecins Sans Frontieres has continued to be an aid system that prioritizes efficiency and timeliness to those who need it the most.

Founders of MSF:

  • Dr. Jacques Beres
  • Philippe Bernier
  • Raymond Borel
  • Dr. Jean Cabrol
  • Dr. Marcel Delcourt
  • Dr. Xavier Emmauelli
  • Dr. Pascal Greletty-Bosviel
  • Gerard Illiouz
  • Dr. Bernard Kouchner
  • Dr. Gerard Pigeon
  • Vladan Radoman
  • Dr. Max Recamier
  • Dr. Jean-Michel Wild