Brief History of Lifesaving

The following is a brief history of lifesaving in the United States and around the world.

623 - Pope Gregory I commissions a hospital to be built in Jerusalem to care for Christian pilgrims to the Holy Land. In 800, the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne enlarges this hospital and adds a library to it.

1113 - The Order of the Knights Hospitaller is established in Jerusalem for the care and protection of Christian pilgrims. They grow into a powerful military force while maintaining a knowledge of field medical care and first aid treatment.

1300s - Resuscitation methods for drowning victims are developed in China.


Life preserver sketch by Da Vinci

1500s - Leonardo da Vinci sketches a type of life preserver.

1700s–1800s - Nations in Europe, Asia, and America create lifesaving societies and lifeboat services to aid shipwreck victims. The 1708 Chinese Chinkiang Association for the Saving of Life was the earliest one of these.

1740 - The Paris Academy of Sciences officially recommends mouth-to-mouth resuscitation for drowning victims.

1776 - The Amsterdam Rescue Society is formed. The Society places bellows along beaches for the resuscitation of drowning victims.

1804 - W. H. Mallison invents the first lifebelt, called the Seaman’s Friend. It was never adopted by the British Royal Navy because it was bulky and might encourage desertion at sea.because of it. (For a brief history of life preservers, go here.)

1832 - Lt. Kisbee invents the Kisbee ring, a type of ring buoy.

1854 - A cork lifebelt was invented by Navy Commander J.R. Ward.

1855 - William S. Cazier is appointed the first constable of the surf at Atlantic City, New Jersey.

1862 - Henri Dunant writes the booklet, A Memory of Solferino, that leads to the establishment of the first Red Cross Society in Geneva for the relief and treatment of the ill and injured due to war. The Red Cross became the first organized relief society since the Order of St. John and the Knight Hospital

1864 - The original Geneva Convention is signed by 12 nations. The United States, however, does not sign this treaty until 1882. For information about the Geneva Conventions, go here.

1878 - The first international life saving congress is held in Marseilles, France.

Clara Barton

Clara Barton

1881 - Clara Barton founds the American National Red Cross in Washington DC.

1882 - President Chester A. Arthur signs the Geneva Convention, making the United States the 32nd national to sign the treaty. Congress ratifies the treaty the same year.

1890 - The YMCA establishes the United Volunteer Lifesaving Society.

1897 - Captain Henry Sheffield invents the rescue can (the predecessor of the rescue buoy).

1903 - The Schafer Prone Pressure method of resuscitation is developed. In the same year, Dr. George Crile reports the first successful use of external chest compressions in human resuscitation.

1905 - Commodore Wilbert E. Longfellow begins teaching swimming and lifesaving, at first with the US Volunteer Life Saving Corp and, by 1914, with the American National Red Cross.

1907 - The YMCA begins its swimming program at a swimming pool in Detroit, Michigan. Meanwhile, in Australia, the New South Wales Surf Bathing Association is established.

1908 - Hinnie Zimmerman becomes the first lifeguard hired for the City of Long Beach, California. This same year, George Freeth begins working as the head swimming instructor at the Redondo Beach Plunge in Redondo Beach, California. In December of this year, Freeth saves 7 Japanese fishermen thrown into rough waters from 3 boats. Freeth receives the Congressional Gold Medal as a result of his bravery.

1915 - The US Coast Guard is formed by a merger of the Revenue Cutter Service and the US Life-Saving Service.

1916 - The YMCA publishes a book entitled Lifesaving by John Goss.

1918 - San Diego, California, begins surf lifesaving service after 13 people perish in rip currents in a single day.

1923 - LeRoy Colombo, a deaf man, begins to work as a beach lifeguard in Galveston, Texas. During his 40-year career, he makes 907 saves and nearly drowns 16 times while making rescues. He retires in 1967 at the age of 62.

Duke Kahanamoku

Duke Kahanamoku

1925 - Duke Kahanamoku, the father of international surfing, rescues 8 people from a capsized boat off Corona Del Mar, California, using only his surf board. He is credited with introducing the rescue board.

1935 - Peter Peterson of Santa Monica, California, invents the Peterson belt (later known as the rescue tube).

1937 - The American Red Cross publishes Swimming and Diving and Life Saving and Water Safety, both by Cal Bryant.

1938 - Orange County beaches in California begin employing lifeguards. Down under, the Australian Beach and Pool Officers Association is established. In 1984, this organization becomes the Australian Professional Ocean Lifeguard Association.

1949 - After being rewritten several times, the three existing Geneva Conventions are rewritten for a final time and a fourth Convention is added. Collectively, these treaties become known as the Geneva Conventions of 1949. For information about the Geneva Conventions, go here.

1951 - The Holger-Neilsen back-pressure arm-lift method of artificial respiration is introduced.

1954 - James Elam is the first to prove that expired air was sufficient to maintain adequate oxygenation. Two years later, Peter Safar and James Elam invent mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

1955 - The Royal Life Saving Society is reorganized into 5 national branches: Australia, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa, and the United Kingdom.

1956 - Los Angeles City and County lifeguards send teams to Australia to compete in the first international surf lifeguard competition. Hawaiian and Australian teams also compete. A crowd of 115,000 spectators witness the event. This event led the worldwide use of paddle board, rescue tubes and cans, etc. It also marks the beginning of the United States Lifesaving Association (although it was first known as the Surf Life Saving Association of America).

1957 - CPR is first taught to Los Angeles County Lifeguards by Captain Dwight Crum. CPR is officially introduced to the world by 1960.

1972 - The YMCA introduces the first lifeguard training program in the United States.

1983 - Jeff Ellis and Associates establishes its lifeguard training and risk management services.

1992 - The United States Lifesaving Association establishes national standards for open water lifesaving in the United States.

1993 - The International Life Saving Federation is founded.

1995 - The American Red Cross revamps its Lifeguard Training program to feature equipment-based rescues only and the integration of CPR and first aid into the course. Although equipment-based rescues were introduced years earlier in the Ellis and Associates and YMCA  lifeguard training programs, this move has a profound effect on swimming pool lifeguarding.

2006 - CPR for adults/children and infants is changed to 30:2.

2009 - A robotic lifesaving device, EMILY (Emergency Integrated Lifesaving LanYard), is developed by Arizona-based Hydronalix.

2012 - The TV docudrama Lifeguard! Southern California premieres on The Weather Channel.

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