|Albert Schweitzer (1874
Born in Alsace as the eldest son of a Lutheran
Pastor, Albert Schweitzer has been called the greatest Christian
of his time. His personal philosophy was based on a “reverence for
life” and on a deep commitment to serve humanity through thought
From a young age Schweitzer showed a passion
and a talent for playing the organ, and by 1893 he had a career
as an organist in Strasbourg. He was accepted as a pupil by some
of Europe’s finest professionals and later went on to become the
world’s leading expert on organ building. Charles-Marie Widor, his
organ teacher in Paris, recognized Schweitzer as a Bach interpreter
of unique perception and asked him to write a study of the composer’s
life and art. The result was J.S. Bach: le musicien-poete
(1905), an authoritative study of Bach. In 1906 he wrote an essay
on organ design.
By the age of 21, Schweitzer had decided on
the course for his life. He studied philosophy and theology at the
University of Strasbourg, where he received a doctor’s degree in
philosophy in 1899. At that time he also served as a lecturer in
philosophy and a preacher at St. Nicholas’ Church in Strasbourg.
Two years later he obtained a doctorate in theology, and within
the next two years was appointed principal of St. Thomas College
in Strasbourg, Curate at St. Nicholas, and to the faculty in both
theology and philosophy at the University of Strasbourg. During
this time he also published several books on theology, including
a revolutionary work on New Testament criticism that shaped Western
liberal theology, several books on Kant, and one of his most famous
books, The Quest for the historical Jesus.
Schweitzer had always felt a strong yearning
towards direct service to humanity. In 1904 he chanced upon an article
in the Paris Missionary Society’s publication indicating their urgent
need for physicians in the French colony of Gabon. He was greatly
affected by the piece and felt that his search was over. He believed
that atonement for the wrongs that the Christian had done to underdeveloped
peoples was in itself a justification for missions.
In October 1905 Schweitzer made his intention
to study medicine known to family and friends. He decided to enroll
as a medical student at the beginning of the winter term and would
be off to Africa once finished. He desired to work with his hands,
as it would enable him to actually put into practice the religion
of love that he preached about. Unfortunately his decision to practice
medicine in the jungle was seen as a complete waste of his life
and talents by family and friends. He friends wrote to him with
stern objections, and his father expressed disappointment. Only
Helene Bresslau understood and supported Schweitzer in his decision.
Bresslau studied nursing and later married Schweitzer.
At 38, Schweitzer received his degree with a
specialization in tropical medicine and surgery. When he approached
The Paris Missionary Society about serving as a missionary doctor
in Africa at that time, they turned him down. He was rejected by
the Society on the grounds that accepting him might attract other
liberals and radicals. They did not want any intellectuals and freethinkers
disrupting their mission.
Although the decision of The Paris Missionary
Society was disappointing, it did not deter Schweitzer from his
goal. For eight years he had studied and prepared for his journey.
He had resigned from his academic posts, cancelled long-term concert
and lecture contracts and was totally dependent on a small band
of friends for help. Together with his wife, Helene, Schweitzer
started a program of fundraising to supply a hospital and underwrite
expenses for its first two years. The love, support and encouragement
of his friends made it possible for him to move forward.
In March 1913, Dr. and Mrs. Schweitzer left
for Africa and build a hospital at Lambarene in the French Congo,
now Gabon. The hospital started out in a chicken coop, and gradually
expanded to treat thousands of patients. In the beginning Schweitzer
equipped and maintained the hospital with his own income and energy.
Later gifts from individuals and foundations from all over the world
enabled him to expand and continue doing a great work in Africa.
Not even serious setbacks during and immediately after World War
I deterred him from his mission.
In 1918 Schweitzer returned to Alsace with his
wife, where their daughter Rhena was born on January 14, 1919. They
enjoyed several years together before Schweiter returned to Africa
alone in 1927. Helene, to her sorrow, was not well enough to accompany
her husband, but maintained frequent correspondence. Rhena saw very
little of her father during her childhood, but when her own children
where grown, she acquired technical lab skills and left for Africa
to serve with her father. Schweitzer had requested that upon his
death that Rhena assume the role of Administrator of the hospital,
and when he passed away at the age of 90, she filled that role for
In 1953, at the age of 78, Schweitzer was honored
for his humanitarian work with the Nobel Peace Prize. He used the
$33,000 Nobel Prize to expand the hospital and to build a leper
colony. In 1955 Queen Elizabeth II awarded Schweitzer the “Order
of Merit,” Britain’s highest civilian honour.
Following the bombing of Hiroshima/Nagasaki,
Schweitzer was profoundly disturbed by the development of nuclear
weapons and used his position as a Nobel Laureate to speak out against
nuclear weapons testing. In 1957 he issued a worldwide public appeal,
“A Declaration of Conscience.” This, along with two subsequent appeals
was published in his 1958 book Peace or Atomic War?, which
remains as relevant and compelling today as it was when he first
Although retired as a surgeon, Schweitzer continued
to oversee the hospital until his death at the age of 90. He and
his wife are buried on the hospital grounds in Lambarene. In his
book Out of My Life and Thought, Schweitzer left this legacy
to future generations, “However much concerned I was at the problem
of misery in the world, I never let myself get lost in broodings
over it. I always held firmly to the thought that each one of use
can do a little to bring some portion of it to an end.”