Henri La Fontaine Biography

(Socialist, Senator, and Nobel Peace Prize Winner)

Birthday: April 22, 1854 (Taurus)

Born In: Brussels, Belgium

Henri La Fontaine was a fundamental figure in the 20th century pacifist movement and became the first socialist to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Born and raised in Brussels, he began his career with the Brussels Court of Appeal and was an active member of the Belgian Federation of Lawyers, concurrently fighting for the rights of women, equality and universal franchise. Considered an authority in international law, he also served as a professor of international law for 47 years and founded a number of organizations to promote international cooperation. Soon, his social interest led him to politics and he was elected to Belgian senate, eventually serving first as its secretary and later as its vice chairman. However, he is best known for his contribution to international peace and served as the president of the International Peace Bureau for around thirty-six years, participating in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference and attending the League of Nations Assembly. One of the exponents for the establishment of an international court of justice, he did not live to see his dream come true.

Quick Facts

Died At Age: 89

Born Country: Belgium

Nobel Peace Prize Political Leaders

Died on: May 14, 1943

place of death: Brussels, Belgium

Notable Alumni: Université Libre De Bruxelles

More Facts

education: Université Libre de Bruxelles

awards: Nobel Peace Prize

Childhood & Early Years

Henry Marie La Fontaine was born on 22 April 1854, in Brussels, the capital city of Belgium, into a comfortable middle-class family. Both his parents, Alfred La Fontaine and Marie-Louise Philips, were progressive thinkers, while his younger sister, Léonie La Fontaine, was a well-known pacifist and women’s right activist.

Nothing is known about his educational background except that he studied law at the Université libre de Bruxelles, an institution aimed at developing free thinking. During this period, he became passionate about international law, regarding it as the best possible way to bring about global peace.

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Early Career

In 1877, Henri La Fontaine graduated from law school and registered as counsel with the Brussels Court of Appeal and quickly became one of Belgium’s leading jurists. Concurrently, he began to work towards promoting equality and was appointed secretary of a technical school for young women in 1878.

Sometime in early 1880s, he met British pacifist, Hodgson Pratt, and became involved with International Peace Bureau. Simultaneously, he began writing, publishing Les droits et des obligations des entrepreneurs de travaux publics, a legal handbook on rights and duties of contractors, in 1885 and Traité de la contrefaçon, in 1888.

In 1889, he co-founded and became the secretary-general of Société belge de l’arbitrage et de la paix, the Belgium chapter of the International Association for Arbitration and Peace. Thereafter, he started participating in almost all peace congresses, meanwhile cofounding with his sister, Belgian League for the Rights of Women, in 1890.

In 1893, he began teaching at the Université libre de Bruxelles as professor of international law, continuing to hold the chair till 1940.  However, his interest in social reforms soon led him into politics and very soon he was writing for the socialist movement, publishing Manuel des lois de la paix: Code de l'arbritrage in 1894.

Political Career & Peace Movement

In 1895, Henri La Fontaine cofounded the Institut International de Bibliographie with fellow lawyer, Paul Otlet, with a mission to standardize bibliographic methods, remaining involved with its activities to the very end. In 1905, their work on the Dewey Decimal Classification led to an early edition of the Universal Decimal Classification

Also in 1895, he entered the Belgian Senate as a member of the Socialist Party, representing Hainaut till 1898. Active from the very beginning, he was elected to attend the conference of the Interparliamentary Union soon after entering the Senate.

Also in 1895, he introduced a Bill on primary education, submitting another on mine inspection, in 1897. Concurrently, he continued to work with the International Peace Bureau, helping to bring about The Hague Peace Conferences of 1899.

In 1900, he was elected from Liège, representing the constituency till 1932, serving as the Secretary of the Senate from 1907 to 1919 and as its Vice Chairman from 1919 to 1932. Continuing to write, he published Pasicrisie international, in 1902 and Bibliographie de la Paix et de l'Arbitrage, in 1904.

Equally active in peace movement, he succeeded Fredrik Bajer as president of the International Peace Bureau in 1907, remaining its titular head till his death. Also in the same year, he helped to organize a second The Hague Peace Conferences.

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In 1907, he cofounded the Central Office of International Associations with Paul Otlet. An independent research institute and a repository for current and historical information on the global civil society, it was later renamed as Union of International Associations. In 1912, he also founded the review La Vie Internationale.

Around this time, he also started speaking about the necessity of establishing different international bodies like world school and university, a world parliament, and especially an international court of justice in order to pre-empt international conflict.

In 1913, he organized the first National Peace Congress in Brussels and created the Permanent Delegation of Belgian Peace Societies in an effort to unite different pacifist societies. In the same year, he received the Nobel Peace Prize. But his efforts were soon derailed by the outbreak of WWI.

The First World War forced Henri La Fontaine to leave his homeland, moving first to London in September 1914, and then to USA in April 1915; he continuing to spread the message of peace from exile.

In 1916, he published one of his greatest works, The Great Solution, Magnissima Charta; Essay on Evolutionary and Constructive Pacifism.

After First World Wat

At the end of the First World War in 1919, Henri La Fontaine attended Paris Peace Conference as member of the Belgian delegation and was appointed to the post of the technical advisor. In this conference, the decision to set up the League of Nations was taken.

In 1920 and 1921, he attended the League of Nations Assembly as a Belgian delegate, speaking on important issues.  However, he was soon sidelined due to difference of opinion with major powers.

Equally concerned about intellectual activities, he had earlier established the Centre Intellectuel Mondial. When the League of Nations Institute for Intellectual Co-operation began operating in 1922, the organization was merged into it.

Concurrently, while working for international peace, he remained equally dedicated to national welfare, showing an abiding interest in education, labor, and foreign affairs, supporting adoption of the eight-hour day and forty-hour week in 1926. Moreover, he also spoke regularly on all important issues regarding the foreign affairs.

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By 1930s, he was disappointed with the League of Nations capability to forestall conflict and started taking his message directly to the public. In 1935, he was reelected to the Senate, representing Brabant till 1936, where he continued to campaign for universal suffrage, secular education and better working condition.

In August 1937, he attended the World Congress of Universal Documentation as the founder-member of Institut International de Bibliographie.  Concurrently, he continued to hold the Chair of International Law till 1940.

As a Professor of International Law, he spoke on a wide variety of subjects. While he mostly offered courses on international law and evolution of the judicial structures, he also gave lectures on other subjects including disarmament, international misunderstandings, the League of Nations etc.

Major Works

Although Henri La Fontaine successfully worked in various fields, he is best known for his contribution to world peace. President of International Peace Bureau from 1907 to 1943, he believed that peace could only be guaranteed through the codification of international law and the establishment of an International Court of Justice.

Awards & Achievements

In 1913, Henri La Fontaine received the Nobel Peace Prize "for his unparalleled contribution to the organization of peaceful internationalism."

Death & Legacy

Henri La Fontaine died on 14 May 1943, in Brussels, Belgium.

The Henri La Fontaine Foundation, created in his honor, continues to carry on his legacy, rewarding individuals and organizations, who work for peace, free thinking, feminism and social justice with Henri La Fontaine International Prize for Humanism.


Despite his busy schedule, Henri La Fontaine took a keen interest in mountaineering, going out for an excursion into the Alps whenever he got a chance, writing about his experiences in the club journal.  He also served as the President of the Club alpin belge in 1891-1892 and from 1925 to 1943.

He was also a freemason, and a member of the lodge Les Amis Philanthropes in Brussels.

See the events in life of Henri La Fontaine in Chronological Order

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