Albert Schweitzer

Mini biography

Born on 14 January 1875 in Kaysersberg, about 80 km southwest of Strasbourg.

Soon after his birth Schweitzer's family moves to Günsbach, about 15 km southwest of Kaysersberg. Schweitzer's father and maternal grandfather are Lutheran ministers. The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre is his younger cousin. Schweitzer's family have interests in religion, music and scholarship.

Schweitzer receives his primary education at the village school. Though at first a poor student, he excels in music. He will go on to become an accomplished and internationally recognised concert organist and an authority on the music and life of Johann Sebastian Bach. He also becomes the world's leading expert on organ building.

Academically, Schweitzer continues to do poorly until he reaches secondary school. Then, in one term, he rises from the bottom of the class to near the top.

1893 - Schweitzer enrols to study theology at the University of Strasbourg. He obtains a doctorate in philosophy in 1899 and his licentiate (licence) in theology in 1900.

1896 - Aged 21, Schweitzer resolves to devote the next nine years of his life to his personal aspirations and then, when he turns 30, to work solely for the benefit of society.

1899 - He begins preaching at Saint Nicholas Church in Strasbourg. He is ordained as the church's curate in 1900 and regularly delivers sermons. From 1901 to 1912 he serves in various high ranking administrative posts in the Theological College of Saint Thomas, the college he had attended at the University of Strasbourg.

1904 - Schweitzer reads an appeal from the French Protestant Missionary Society in Paris that changes his life. The appeal explains the urgent need for physicians in French Equatorial Africa, a former French colony in the west of central Africa comprised of the present-day territories of Gabon, the Republic of the Congo, Chad, and the Central African Republic.

Schweitzer decides he can best help as a medical missionary and in 1905 begins to study medicine and surgery at the University of Strasbourg. Although he initially faces disapproval from friends, family and colleagues, who consider his decision to be a waste of his talents, he persists with his plan.

"I wanted to become a doctor in order to be able to work without words," Schweitzer later writes. "For years I had used the word. My new occupation would be not to talk about the gospel of love, but to put it into practice."

1905 - He publishes his celebrated study of Bach, 'J.S. Bach: Le Musicien-poète'. Initially written in French, Schweitzer rewrites the manuscript in German in 1908. An English translation appears in 1911.

1906 - He publishes 'The Quest of the Historical Jesus', a book on which much of his fame as a theological scholar rests. The same year he publishes a book on organ building and playing.

1912 - Schweitzer marries Hélène Bresslau, the daughter of a distinguished professor of history at University of Strasbourg. Bresslau is a trained nurse and is also committed to social service. The couple have known one another for 10 years.

1913 - Having completed his medical studies and qualified as a doctor of medicine, Schweitzer applies for a position with the Protestant Missionary Society but is rejected because of his liberal views.

Undeterred, Schweitzer raises enough funds to run a hospital for two years and convinces the Protestant Missionary Society to accept his offer of cost free help. All that the society provides is a house and a piece of land on which to build the hospital.

In March Schweitzer and Hélène leave for French Equatorial Africa to found his hospital at Lambaréné (in present-day Gabon), a small village on the Ogowé River, 200 km inland and close to the Equator. They arrive to find hundreds of patients already waiting for treatment.

The Schweitzers care for about 2,000 patients during their first year. Most of the rest of Schweitzer's life is devoted to the health care of the people in the region.

The diseases treated by Schweitzer include skin ailments of various sorts, malaria, sleeping sickness, leprosy, elephantiasis, heart complaints, osteomyelitis, tropical dysentery, hernias, pleurisy, whooping cough and venereal diseases.

1914 - When the First World War begins, the Schweitzers, who are German citizens, are deemed "enemy aliens" by the French authorities governing the region. They are placed under house arrest for four months before being allowed to continue their work, although they are kept under surveillance.

During this period Schweitzer starts work on his two-volume treatise 'The Philosophy of Civilisation'.

1915 - While travelling up the Ogowé River from Lambaréné, Schweitzer has a revelation that crystallises his philosophy of "Reverence for Life".

"There flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase 'Reverence for Life'. ... The iron door had yielded. The path in the thicket had become visible. ... Now I had found my way to the idea in which life affirmation and ethics are contained side by side," he later says of the experience.

"Through reverence for life, we come into a spiritual relationship with the universe. The inner depth of feeling we experience through it gives us the will and the capacity to create a spiritual and ethical set of values that enable us to act on a higher plane, because we then feel ourselves truly at home in our world. Through reverence for life, we become, in effect, different persons."

1917 - With no end to the First World War in sight, the Schweitzers are taken into custody by the French and sent to an internment camp at Saint Remy in France. They are released in 1918. Schweitzer spends the next six years in Europe. He joins the medical staff of the Strasbourg Hospital, preaches in his old church, gives lectures and concerts, and takes medical courses.

He also writes 'On the Edge of the Primeval Forest', 'The Decay and Restoration of Civilisation', 'Civilisation and Ethics', and 'Christianity and the Religions of the World'.

1919 - The Schweitzer's daughter, Rhena, is born on 14 January.

1923 - 'The Philosophy of Civilisation', the work inspired by Schweitzer's reverence for life revelation, is published.

1924 - Schweitzer returns to Lambaréné and rebuilds his hospital. When the space at the original site is filled Schweitzer decides to relocate the hospital to another site several kilometres down the river. The rebuilding begins once again.

Schweitzer devotes himself almost entirely to the building project, with medical duties at the hospital being taken up by two newly arrived European doctors and two nurses.

Hélène Bresslau, whose long-standing tuberculosis had flared during their period in the French internment camp, remains in Europe with their daughter, Rhena.

Bresslau returns to Lambaréné on only two occasions, the first during the Second World War to help her husband when he loses most of his staff, and the second after her death when her body is returned for burial in the hospital grounds.

1927 - Construction of the relocated hospital is completed. Schweitzer will expand the complex over the coming years with funds earned from his own royalties and personal appearance fees and with donates from patrons around the world.

By the time of his death, the Lambaréné hospital consists of 72 buildings with beds for 600 patients and a staff of six doctors and 35 nurses. The complex includes a fully equipped operating theatre, air-conditioned X-ray room, laboratory, dental clinic, delivery room, doctor's offices and a dispensary. Between 6,000 and 7,000 patients are treated every year.

The principles of Reverence for Life are put into daily practice at Lambaréné. According to the obituary for Schweitzer published in 'The New York Times', "Lambaréné was suffused with Reverence for Life to what some critics thought was an exaggerated degree. Mosquitoes were not swatted, nor pests and insects doused with chemicals; they were left alone, and humans put up with them. Indeed, building was often brought to a halt lest nests of ants be killed or disturbed. On the other hand, patients received splendid medical care and few seemed to suffer greatly from the compound's lack of polish."

Schweitzer takes on multiple roles at Lambaréné - doctor, surgeon, pastor, administrator, superintendent, writer, commentator, musician and host.

In the middle of the year, Schweitzer returns to Europe. He does not return to Lambaréné until 1929. Except for this, and other relatively short though frequent periods away, Schweitzer spends the remainder of his life at Lambaréné.

1928 - Schweitzer is awarded the Goethe Prize by the city of Frankfurt. During his life he receives many other awards. In 1951 he is elected to the French Academy. In 1955 Queen Elizabeth II awards Schweitzer the Order of Merit, Britain's highest civilian honour.

1953 - On 10 December he is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1952. He uses the US$33,000 prize money to start a leprosarium at Lambaréné.

Presenting the award, the Chairman of the Nobel Committee says, "In these troubled and uncertain times men are searching for something which will allow them to believe that mankind will one day enjoy the reign of peace and goodwill. ...

"We all realise that we are still far away from this goal. It is the youth of today who will follow the path indicated by Albert Schweitzer. All through his long life he has been true to his own youth and he has shown us that a man's life and his dream can become one. His work has made the concept of brotherhood a living one, and his words have reached and taken root in the minds of countless men."

Full copy of the presentation speech.

Schweitzer presents his Nobel lecture, 'The Problem of Peace', on 4 November 1954.

1957 - Schweitzer publishes 'A Declaration of Conscience', his public appeal against the development of nuclear weapons. Schweitzer continues to lobby for nuclear disarmament for the rest of his life. He corresponds with his friend Albert Einstein and with US nuclear scientist Robert Oppenheimer on the subject and is considered to hold such moral authority that the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) attempts to stop him from speaking out.

Hélène Bresslau dies in Zurich on 1 June. Her body is transported to Lambaréné and buried on the hospital grounds.

1965 - Schweitzer dies on 4 September and is buried at Lambaréné alongside his wife. Rhena Schweitzer takes over the administration of his hospital.

The week before his death Schweitzer writes, "After more than a half-century in Africa, I still remain convinced that truth, love, peaceableness, meekness and kindness are the violence that can master all other violence."

Postscript

The Albert Schweitzer Hospital still exists at Lambaréné, under the administration of the International Foundation for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital. The hospital provides services in general medicine, surgery, paediatrics, obstetrics, dentistry and medical research.

Schweitzer's original hospital building at Lambaréné is also still standing, although now it operates only as a museum.

Comment

Though a household name during his lifetime, Albert Schweitzer is now largely forgotten. This is unfortunate because his life and his contributions still retain huge resonance.

While many may be perturbed by his overt Christianity and tendency to paternalism, and while his Reverence for Life philosophy is derivative of Eastern religions, and Buddhism in particular, Schweitzer's example of selfless devotion to his fellow humans is one from which we all can learn.

Albert Einstein once said Schweitzer "did not preach and did not warn and did not dream that his example would be an ideal and comfort to innumerable people. He simply acted out of inner necessity."

In his 'Memoirs of Childhood and Youth' Schweitzer writes, "The conviction that we must, throughout life, struggle to continue to think and to feel as we did in our youth has accompanied me as a faithful adviser. I have instinctively taken care not to become what most of us understand by the term 'a man of experience'. The knowledge of life which we adults should pass on to the younger generation is: 'Grow into your ideals so that life cannot rob you of them'. ... If all of us could become what we were at 14, what a different place the world would be!"