Our History

For more than 110 years, Rotary members have been addressing challenges around the world.

Grassroots at the core, Rotary links 1.2 million members to form an organization of international scope. It started with the vision of one man Paul Harris. The Chicago attorney formed the Rotary Club of Chicago on 23 February 1905, so professionals with diverse backgrounds could exchange ideas, form meaningful, lifelong friendships, and give back to their communities.

Originally formed for fellowship, the first Rotary club quickly evolved to use the talents and resources of its members to serve the community. By the end of 1905, the Rotary Club of Chicago had 30 members. Three years later a second club was established in San Francisco, California, USA. The next year three more clubs were established on the west coast of the United States and a fourth in New York City. Within a few years other groups formed service clubs based on the Rotary model.

The first Rotary convention was held in the Congress Hotel in Chicago in August 1910. The National Association of Rotary Clubs was organized at that time with 16 member clubs. Rotary founder Paul Harris was elected the association first president.

During the 1911-1912 Rotary year, the association became international with the founding of a club in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Soon Rotary crossed the Atlantic to establish clubs in England, Ireland and Northern Ireland. The National Association of Rotary Clubs, which became the International Association of Rotary Clubs in 1912, adopted the name Rotary International (RI) in 1922. Before reaching its 20th birthday, the Rotary association had grown to include some 200 clubs with more than 20,000 members across the globe:

The first Rotary club in Latin America was organized in Havana, Cuba in 1915.

Asia first club was established in Manila, Philippines in 1919.

In 1921, Rotary clubs were organized for the first time on continental Europe

(Madrid, Spain), Africa (Johannesburg, South Africa), and Australia (Melbourne).

In the aftermath of World War II, Rotary International sent the largest non-governmental organization delegation to the United Nations Charter Conference, held in 1945 in San Francisco. Forty-nine Rotarians served as delegates, advisors and consultants to the conference. A Rotary-sponsored conference of education ministers and observers held in London in 1943 was the inspiration for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), established in 1946.

The Rotary Foundation enjoyed modest growth until 1947, when Rotarians made a significant number of contributions in memory of Paul Harris, who died in January 1947. That same year the Foundation launched its first program, Graduate Fellowships (today called Ambassadorial Scholarships), sending 18 students abroad to 7 countries. Today, approximately 1,300 students study abroad as Rotary Scholars every year.

Two of Rotary programs for young people, Rotaract and Interact, were started during the turbulent 1960s. Interact (for youth ages 14-18) and Rotaract (for young adults ages 18-30) clubs operate under the guidance of a sponsoring Rotary club and give young people opportunities for community service and leadership development, and to promote international peace and understanding. Service to youth remains an important focus of Rotary.

Today, Rotary International encourages its clubs to focus on a broad spectrum of service activities such as hunger, the environment, violence prevention, illiteracy, drug abuse prevention, polio eradication, youth, the elderly, and AIDS awareness and education. Rotary clubs around the world are united under the motto Service Above Self.