Albert Schweitzer (1874 – 1965)

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 and action.

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 many years.

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 wrote it.

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.”



Schweitzer's Struggle to Find Life's Meaning

The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship

The Albert Schweitzer Institute

International Albert Schweitzer Foundation

Albert Schweitzer, German Philosopher, Physician and Humanitarian (1875-1965) - Biography and resource information by Lucid Interactive

The Albert Schweitzer Page, Biography and resource information complied by Jack Fenner

Published Works

Reverence for Life

Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography

The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede

The Mystery of the Kingdom of God: The Secret of Jesus' Messiahship and Passion

The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle

The Philosophy of Civilization

J. S. Bach (Volume 1)

J. S. Bach (Volume 2)