MSF history

Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) was founded in 1971 in France by a group of doctors and journalists in the wake of war and famine in Biafra. Their aim was to establish an independent organisation that focuses on delivering emergency medicine aid quickly, effectively and impartially.

Three hundred volunteers made up the organisation when it was founded: doctors, nurses and other staff, including the 13 founding doctors and journalists.

MSF was created in the belief that all people should have access to healthcare regardless of gender, race, religion, creed or political affiliation, and that people’s medical needs outweigh respect for national boundaries. MSF’s principles of action are described in our charter, which established a framework for our activities.

MSF's first missions

MSF’s first mission was to the Nicaraguan capital, Managua, in 1972, after an earthquake destroyed most of the city and killed between 10,000 and 30,000 people.

In 1974, MSF set up a relief mission to help the people of Honduras after Hurricane Fifi caused major flooding and killed thousands of people.

In 1975, MSF established its first large-scale medical programme during a refugee crisis, providing medical care for the waves of Cambodians seeking sanctuary from Pol Pot’s oppressive rule.

In these first missions, the weaknesses of MSF as a new humanitarian organisation became readily apparent: preparation was lacking, doctors were left unsupported and supply chains were tangled.

Founders of MSF

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

Competing visions lead to split

Led by Dr Claude Malhuret and Dr Francis Charhon, thinking in MSF throughout the 1970s began to move beyond sending doctors to crisis zones in favour of creating a more structured organisation. Co-founder Dr Bernard Kouchner didn’t agree with the evolution, left MSF and went on to start another organisation called Médecins du Monde. 

Building MSF

Since 1980, MSF has opened offices in 28 countries. Today, MSF employs more than 35,000 people across the world. Since its founding, MSF has treated over a hundred million patients – with 8.6 million outpatient consultations being carried out in 2015 alone.

MSF remains fiercely independent of both governments and institutions. MSF also reserves the right to speak out to bring attention to neglected crises, challenge inadequacies or abuse of the aid system, and to advocate for improved medical treatments and protocols.

MSF rejects the idea that poor countries deserve third-rate medical services and strives to provide high-quality care to patients. Simultaneously, and with equal vigor, MSF continuously seeks to improve the organisation's own practices.

Over the years, MSF has received many prestigious awards in recognition of its medical humanitarian work. In 1999, MSF received the Nobel Peace Prize.