Albert Schweitzer

Mini biography

Born on 14 January 1875 in Kaysersberg, near Strasbourg in Upper Alsace, which was then part of the German Empire and is now in the Haut-Rhin province of France.

Soon after his birth Schweitzer's family moves to Günsbach, about 10 km to the south of Kaysersberg. His family is culturally sophisticated, with interests in religion, music and scholarship. His father and maternal grandfather are Lutheran ministers. The French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre is Schweitzer's very much younger cousin.

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, using the income he makes from his performances to fund his education and his African hospital. He will also become the world's leading expert on organ building.

Academically, Schweitzer continues to do poorly until his secondary schooling at Mulhouse, where in one term he rises from the bottom of the class to near the top.

1893 - He begins tertiary studies in theology at the University of Strasbourg, obtaining a doctorate in philosophy in 1899, and his licentiate in theology in 1900.

1894 - Schweitzer's studies are interrupted by a year of compulsory military service.

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 will change 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 will later write. "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 Strasbourg University, she 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 his wife 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. At the same time, Schweitzer begins the building program. Most of the rest of his life will be devoted to the health care of the people in the region.

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

1914 - With the outbreak of the First World War, 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 begins 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.

"I found it difficult to believe that the way to a deeper and stronger ethic, for which I had searched in vain, had been revealed to me as in a dream."

"I knew that a system of values which concerns itself only with our relationship to other people is incomplete and therefore lacking in power for good. Only by means of reverence for life can we establish a spiritual and humane relationship with both people and all living creatures within our reach. Only in this fashion can we avoid harming others, and, within the limits of our capacity, go to their aid whenever they need us. ...

"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. Following their release 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 and 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 will return 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. Using the funds earned from his own royalties and personal appearance fees and with donates from patrons around the world, Schweitzer will expand the complex over the coming years.

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."

Full copy of the obituary.

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 will not return to Lambaréné until 1929.

Except for this, and other relatively short though frequent periods away, Schweitzer will spend the remainder of his life at Lambaréné.

His wife, whose long-standing tuberculosis has flared during their period in the French internment camp, and their daughter remain in Europe.

1928 - Schweitzer is awarded the Goethe Prize by the city of Frankfurt. During his life he will receive honorary doctorates from many universities.

1949 - He visits the United States.

1951 - He is elected to the French Academy.

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, "If we choose to judge his achievement in terms of success in fighting sickness and disease, then we should of course give pride of place to his work as a doctor. But let us never lose sight of the fact that the very impact of his personality and the propagation of his gospel of love will in the final instance achieve more, and will, in addition, stimulate the growth of brotherhood among races. ...

"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.

"If altruism, reverence for life, and the idea of brotherhood can become living realities in the hearts of men, we will have laid the very foundations of a lasting peace between individuals, nations, and races.

"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 the following year.

"I am well aware that what I have had to say on the problem of peace is not essentially new," he tells the audience gathered in the auditorium of the Oslo University.

"It is my profound conviction that the solution lies in our rejecting war for an ethical reason; namely, that war makes us guilty of the crime of inhumanity. ...

"The only originality I claim is that for me this truth goes hand in hand with the intellectual certainty that the human spirit is capable of creating in our time a new mentality, an ethical mentality. Inspired by this certainty, I too proclaim this truth in the hope that my testimony may help to prevent its rejection as an admirable sentiment but a practical impossibility. Many a truth has lain unnoticed for a long time, ignored simply because no one perceived its potential for becoming reality.

"Only when an ideal of peace is born in the minds of the peoples will the institutions set up to maintain this peace effectively fulfil the function expected of them."

Full copy of the lecture.

1955 - Queen Elizabeth II awards Schweitzer the 'Order of Merit', Britain's highest civilian honour.

1957 - Schweitzer publishes 'A Declaration of Conscience', his public appeal against the development of nuclear weapons. Schweitzer will continue 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.

During the year his wife Hélène dies in Zurich. She is buried at Lambaréné.

1958 - In April the president of the Nobel Prize Committee reads three antinuclear statements by Schweitzer on Radio Oslo. The statements, ('The Renunciation of Nuclear Tests', 'The Danger of an Atomic War', and 'Negotiations at the Highest Level') call for the abandonment of both nuclear tests and the production of nuclear weapons, and are published in book form under the title 'Peace or Atomic War?'.

"The awareness that we are all human beings together has become lost in war and through politics," Schweitzer writes.

"We have reached the point of regarding each other only as members of a people wither allied with us or against us and our approach: prejudice, sympathy or antipathy, are all conditioned by that. Now we must rediscover the fact that we - all together - are human beings, and that we must strive to concede to each other what moral capacity we have. Only in this way can we begin to believe that in other peoples as well as in ourselves there will arise the need for a new spirit, which can be the beginning of a feeling of mutual trustworthiness towards each other."

1964 - In the report 'Albert Schweitzer Speaks Out', Schweitzer reflects on the future of the humanity in a nuclear age.

"Compared to former generations, inhumanity has actually grown," he writes. "Because we possess atomic weapons, the possibility and temptation to destroy life has increased immeasurably. Due to the tremendous advances in technology, the capacity to destroy life has become the fate of mankind. We can save ourselves from this fate only by abolition of atomic weapons.

"We must not allow cruel national thinking to prevail. The abolition of atomic weapons will become possible only if world opinion demands it. And the spirit needed to achieve this can be created only by reverence for life. The course of history demands that not only individuals become ethical personalities, but that nations do so as well."

1965 - Schweitzer dies on 4 September and is buried at Lambaréné alongside his wife. His daughter Rhena 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. ...

"It is this principle of love that we have tried to practice in succouring the Negroes of West Africa."

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'. ...

"The knowledge of life which we grown-ups have to pass on to the younger generation will not be expressed thus: 'Reality will soon give way before your ideals', but 'Grown into your ideals, so that life can never rob you of them'. If all of us could become what we were at 14, what a different place the world would be!"

He also writes, "If I were to renounce any of the enthusiasm I feel for seeking truth, I should be renouncing myself."

And, "Ethics consist in my experiencing the compulsion to show to all will-to-live the same reverence as I do my own. A man is truly ethical only when he obeys the compulsion to help all life which he is able to assist, and shrinks from injuring anything that lives."