Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was an Alsatian-German religious philosopher, musicologist, and medical missionary in Africa. He was known especially for founding the Schweitzer Hospital, which provided unprecedented medical care for the natives of Lambaréné in Gabon.

Albert Schweitzer, the son of an Evangelical Lutheran minister, was born on Jan. 14, 1875, in Kaysersberg, Alsace, which was then under German rule. Albert's early life was both comfortable and happy. One Sunday morning, when he was about 8, he had an experience that helped to shape his life. At the strong urging of another lad, he reluctantly aimed his slingshot at several birds which, as he later wrote, "sang sweetly into the morning sunshine." Moved, he "made a silent vow to miss. At that moment, the sound of church bells began to mingle with the sunshine and the singing of the birds…. For me, it was a voice from heaven. I threw aside my slingshot, shooed the birds away to protect them from my friend's slingshot, and fled home."

When Albert was 10 years old, he went to live with his granduncle and grandaunt in Mulhouse so that he could attend the excellent local school. He graduated from secondary school at the age of 18. During these 8 years he learned directly from his elderly relatives the demanding ethical code and rigorous scholarly outlook of their early-1800s generation.

In 1893 Schweitzer enrolled at the University of Strasbourg, where, until 1913, he enjoyed a brilliant career as student, teacher, and administrator. His main field was theology and philosophy, and in 1899 he won a doctorate in philosophy with a thesis on Immanuel Kant.

Schweitzer also made a profound study of Nietzsche and Tolstoy, recoiling from Nietzsche's adulation of the all-conquering "superman" and being greatly attracted to Tolstoy's doctrine of love and compassion. The definitive influence, however, on Schweitzer was the life of Jesus, to whose message and messiahship he devoted years of research and reflection. His classic work The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906) deals with major scholarly writings on Jesus from the 17th century onward; the volume was well received and quickly became a standard source book.


Renunciation and Dedication

Meanwhile, Schweitzer's biography of J. S. Bach, written in 1905, had also proved an immediate success. At 30 years of age Schweitzer was tall, broad-shouldered, darkly handsome, and a witty, charismatic writer, preacher, and lecturer: clearly, a bright future lay before him. However, one spring morning in 1905, he experienced a stunning religious revelation: it came to him that at some point in the years just ahead he must renounce facile success and devote himself unsparingly to the betterment of mankind's condition.

Accordingly, several years later, Schweitzer threw over his several careers as author, lecturer, and organ recitalist and plunged into the study of medicine—his aim being to go to Africa as a medical missionary. He won his medical degree in 1912. The year before, he had married Helene Bresslau, a professor's daughter who had studied nursing in order to work at his side in Africa; in 1919 the couple had a daughter, Rhena.

Establishment in Africa

In 1913 the Schweitzers journeyed to what was then French Equatorial Africa. There, after various setbacks, they founded the Albert Schweitzer Hospital at Lambaréné, on the Ogooué River, "at the edge of the primeval forest." This area now lies within the independent West African republic of Gabon. Funds were scarce and equipment primitive, but native Africans thronged to the site, and in the decades that followed, many thousands were treated.


Reverence for Life

One hot afternoon in 1915, as he sat on the deck of an ancient steamboat chugging its way up the Ogooué, Schweitzer noticed on a sandbank nearby four hippopotamuses with their young. Instantly, "the phrase Reverence for Life struck me like a flash." He had anticipated this phrase more than 3 decades earlier in his refusal to shoot his slingshot at the sweetly singing birds; now, it became the coping stone of his philosophical system and of his everyday life at the hospital.

Somewhat to Schweitzer's chagrin, the news of his lonely, heroic witness at Lambaréné spread abroad, and he became a world-famous exemplary figure. An American named Larimer Mellon, a member of the wealthy Mellon family, was one of the many whose lives were affected by Schweitzer. Inspired by Schweitzer's example, Mellon, then in his late 30s, returned to college, obtained his medical degree, and with his wife, Gwen, set up the Albert Schweitzer Hospital deep in a primitive rural area of Haiti. Many hundreds of lives were similarly changed by Schweitzer's charismatic witness.

Despite his demanding schedule at Lambaréné, Schweitzer found time to lecture in the United States in 1949, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, and published in 1957 and 1958 notable appeals to the superpowers in the name of humanity, urging them to renounce nuclear-weapons testing. He died at Lambaréné on Sept. 4, 1965; at the time, he was still working vigorously on the third volume of his monumental Philosophy of Civilization. On his death his medical associates and his daughter, Mrs. Rhena Eckert-Schweitzer, took over direction of the hospital with the aim of carrying out Schweitzer's wish that its facilities be drastically modernized.


Further Reading on Albert Schweitzer

The best introduction to Schweitzer's thought and personality is through his own engagingly written autobiographical works: At the Edge of the Primeval Forest (1922), Memoirs of Childhood and Youth (1925), and Out of My Life and Thought (1933). One of the best studies of Schweitzer is George Seaver, Albert Schweitzer: The Man and His Mind (1947). Also valuable are Norman Cousins, Dr. Schweitzer of Lambaréné (1960), and Henry Clark, The Philosophy of Albert Schweitzer (1964).

Lively personal and pictorial introductions to Schweitzer are Erica Anderson, Albert Schweitzer's Gift of Friendship (1964) and The Schweitzer Album: A Portrait in Words and Pictures (1965). Two general, readable studies of Schweitzer are Dr. Joseph F. Montague, The Why of Albert Schweitzer (1965), which includes a bibliography of Schweitzer's writings, and Magnus Ratter, Schweitzer—Ninety Years Wise (1964). Also consult Hermann Hagedorn, The Prophet in the Wilderness (1947; rev. ed. 1962); Erica Anderson, The World of Albert Schweitzer (1955); Robert Payne, The Three Worlds of Albert Schweitzer (1957); and Werner Picht, The Life and Thought of Albert Schweitzer (trans. 1964).