Ferdinando Palasciano, the brilliant doctor who was among the fathers of the Red Cross

by Federico Quagliuolo

Ferdinand is a heavy name, laden with history and responsibility, a word that in Naples inspires a strange reverence, an ancestral and inexplicable esteem: if the Latin saying really holds true nomen omen, no doubt Ferdinando Palasciano honored his name because he was among the fathers of the Red Cross, as well as a formidable doctor.

In fact, it was he who first developed the concept of neutrality of the doctor in war. A great achievement which became a personal battle of his colleague Henry Dunant and which was concretized in birth of the Red Cross. But right now Palasciano was betrayed. Let's find out why.

Portrait of Palasciano
Portrait of Ferdinando Palasciano

A young promise at the service of the Kingdom of the Two Sicily

He was born in Capua in 1815, by a municipal secretary and a young girl from a good family: the very young Ferdinando grew up happy on the bank of the Volturno, in the same land that, with its wonders, managed to sweeten the invincible Hannibal.

His was already in sight at school genius: passionate about philosophy, after high school he decided to enroll inUniversity of Letters. Little is known about the course of study, but at 25 Palasciano already had three degrees: one in Philosophy and Letters, the other in Veterinary and yet another in Medicine. He dreamed of being able to become a established doctor, following in the footsteps of his ancient predecessors who, busy, walked the corridors of the Hospital of the Incurables, masters of the life and death of their patients.

Time, however, he never had leniency towards the passions of men: Palasciano's Naples had already been devoured by the worm of Masonry and by the revolutionary movements they brought uprisings in the capitals of all Europe.

Suddenly, the degree and the future career of a doctor thirty years old were drowned in mud from the Messina countryside of 1848, between worn uniforms and muskets, loyalist and revolutionary soldiers, all of them fellow villagers born in the same lands at war with each other.

Palasciano, in 1848, was a young doctor in the Bourbon army: wrote the first treatise on surgery for fire wounds that history remembers, becoming the first true field surgeon of a regular army.

However, it was at the end ofsiege of Messina that, following a bloody conflict between Bourbon and insurgents, Palasciano was moved to see hundreds of dying bodies in the city, carcasses torn apart by bullets, muskets and bombs thrown on the orders of the formidable general Carlo Filangieri, the right arm of Ferdinand II.

Palasciano postcard
A postcard of the Red Cross circulated on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Palasciano's death

Ferdinando Palasciano also treated the enemies

Palasciano, despite the orders to heal only the wounded allies, he decided to embark on a desperate race against time to collect as many injured as possible, he picked up Bourbons and rioters, he dressed the sick in rags, carried out bandages, medicaments and amputations with excellent techniques. It is said to have passed sleepless several nights for save as many lives as possible.

Exhausted, when he was about to collapse and rest his very tired body, came a small group of Bourbon soldiers: General Filangieri had just sentenced one Death penalty for Ferdinando Palasciano, guilty of not having respected orders. 

Brought in military court for a summary trial, Carlo Filangieri asked for the capital punishment, although Palasciano is defended with a simple exclamation: "the wounded, to whatever army they belong, they are sacred to me and they cannot be considered as enemies: my mission as a doctor is too more sacred than the duty of the soldier!". He did not avoid the sentence, but, precisely in that court, the idea was born that one day he would generate the Red Cross. 

Siege of Messina
The siege of Messina, 1848

The birth of the Red Cross and the adventure in politics

Destined now for the gallows, guilty of having been too human, by now Palasciano's life was about to reach its terminus, eliminating the man who, in the future, would change the world.
Now the day of executionHowever, a twist came: King Ferdinand II intervened in person that, recognized the value and high principles who moved the doctor in his actions, he decided to commute the sentence to one year in prison.

Once out of prison, Palasciano yes withdraw from the field life, to follow what would become his life goal: to sanction the neutrality of the injured. And so, while he taught Surgery in the prestigious university of Naples, he bought one immense villa in Capodimonte, which is still visible today from every part of Naples.
Meanwhile, from all over the world doctors flocked listening to his lessons, amazed and admired: it was at that moment that the idea of creating one spread supranational institution, something that could protect the wounded of all sides during the wars: the Red Cross.

And so, on the occasion of an international medical congress of 1861 held in Naples in the Pontanian Academy, Palasciano for the first time brought together the minds that would give rise to the Red Cross and laid the foundations: his words made the world Tour. 

After the unification of Italy, he also went down into politics, hoping to be able to contribute his ideas to reforms of the new Kingdom of Italy: he became first a member of parliament, then a councilor of the municipality. In the meantime, more and more exponents of international medicine began to move towards the creation of the Red Cross: it was chosen neutral Switzerland as the seat of the new institution.

Tower of Ferdinando Palasciano
Tower of Palasciano, photograph by Federico Quagliuolo

Political betrayal

At the most beautiful, Palsciano was betrayed by the Italian government: when the Swiss asked every country in the world to send a delegate to sign the birth of the Red Cross, Italy appointed Dr. Baroffio and Captain Cottrau. And so the Red Cross, indeed the international institution that Palasciano dreamed of, never saw the signature of those who fought for it, who saw his name ripped from the history books by an infamous woman ungratefulness.

Alone, sad and now paralyzed by one very serious illness which struck him in old age, sadly spent the last days in his house in Capodimonte, next to his beloved wife.
And still today, in love with the beautiful sunsets of Naples, the only faithful friends who consoled her loneliness, the soul of Palasciano became a ghost that, at every sunset, looks out among the battlements of the ancient tower of his house.

Several years after his death, during the I. World War, one German ship requisitioned it was renamed in "Palasciano" and used to transport the wounded. Monopoly, his father's hometown, he remembered it instead with a plaque.

-Federico Quagliuolo

Ferdinando Palasciano tombstone
Plaque dedicated to Ferdinando Palasciano in Monopoli


To learn more about the history of this character, we recommend visiting the Palasciania Academy and the association of doctors of Capua "Ferdinando Palasciano", sources of numerous interesting information and curiosities

An interesting article from the University of Bari

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barbara pennazzato 4 August 2020 - 20:18

Good evening, I read some History of the Red Cross, and also of Palasciano, and I found that Palasciano spoke of neutralization (this is the term used by the same) of the wounded on the battlefield before J. Henry Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, but their positions were profoundly different: Palasciano did not speak of the neutrality of the rescuers (doctors, nurses) (something of which Dunant, founder of the Red Cross, aupicated and was obtained), he did not believe in volunteering (the base and the soul of the Red Cross) and has never collaborated in the birth or growth of the Italian Red Cross. He has certainly made significant developments and contributions to surgery and medicine. At the time there may have been jealousy and protection in considering Switzerland as a land of belonging to the Red Cross, but certainly Palasciano's spirit and objectives did not inspire the seven Principles of the Red Cross.
If you have the opportunity to read books on the history of the Red Cross, also containing the latest unknown or unpublished editions on history, you would have an additional source of knowledge.


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