What is Rotary International?

Initially founded by Paul Harris, a Chicago-based lawyer, on 23 February 1905, Rotary has since grown into a global network of people of action who are committed to sustainable change across seven areas of focus. Through the creation of on-going, community-based projects, Rotary clubs across the globe support peace, fight disease, provide clean water, sanitation and hygiene, save mothers and children, support education, grow local economies and protect the environment.

The Four Founding Fathers

Rotary International began with the meeting of four acquaintances in the office of Gustavus Loehr, a mining engineer who worked out of Room 711 in the Unity Building in downtown Chicago. Although the first meeting took place in his office, Loehr (as well as Hiram E. Shorey, a merchant tailor and the club’s first secretary) remained a Rotarian for only a few years. In contrast, the “fifth Rotarian”, Harry L. Ruggles, joined the Rotary Club of Chicago at its second meeting and held various positions of office throughout his active membership. At his death, he was an honorary member of seven Rotary clubs in addition to his home club of Chicago. He was the Club’s treasurer during its first year and was also responsible for introducing singing and the first Rotary songbook at meetings. His printing company, H.L. Ruggles & Co, printed the first Rotary magazine in 1911. This magazine is still distributed. Silvester Schiele, a coal dealer, was the club’s first president and become a life-long friend of Paul Harris. Paul Harris remained devoted to Rotary all his life.

Founder of Rotary International:
Paul Harris, aged 28 in 1896
The "fifth Rotarian": Harry L. Ruggles, 1912

The Original Purpose Behind Rotary

Paul Harris was first inspired to start a club for professionals to exchange ideas and make life-long friendships while he was walking through Chicago’s North Side with fellow attorney, Bob Frank, after a dinner arrangement. Harris was struck by the familiarity that Frank had with many of the shopkeepers in the area and wanted to create that same sense of fellowship within Chicago’s existing business community.

“The thought persisted that I was experiencing only what had happened to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of others in the great city [a lack of camaraderie among businessmen] … I was sure that there must be many other young men who had come from farms and small villages to establish themselves in Chicago. … Why not bring them together? If others were longing for fellowship as I was, something would come of it.”

Although originally formed as a space to exchange ideas and for working professionals to build meaningful, lasting friendships, Rotary, over time, has grown to include the humanitarian aspect that, today, is its hallmark. In 1905, the four friends could not have realised that their first meeting would later grow into an organisation of millions of individuals all committed to service and fellowship.

The first four Rotarians: from left: Gustavus Loehr, Silvester Schiele, Hiram E. Shorey, Paul P. Harris