55 years ago, Alsatian polymath Albert Schweitzer died in Africa

White medicine man Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965)

On September 4th, 1965 German theologian, musician, philosopher, physician, humanitarian and 1952 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Albert Schweitzer died at the hospital he had founded in 1913 in Lambaréné, then French Equatorial Africa, since 1960 located in Gabon.

Born on January 14th, 1875 in Kaysersberg, Alsace, then part of Germany, he attended elementary school in Günsbach, followed by secondary education in Münster and then college in Mühlhausen im Elsaß.

From his father Louis Schweitzer (1846–1925), a Lutheran pastor, he received very good musical training, the basis for his later magnificent organ playing, inspired and fostered by French organist and composer Charles Marie Widor (1844–1937).

He also grew up in an environment of great religious tolerance, which fomented his interest in other religions and in the role or God’s son. In 1906 he published The Quest of the Historical Jesus, which remains a standard text, and in 1930 The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle.

From 1893 to 1900 Schweitzer studied theology and philosophy in Straßburg, Paris and Berlin. In 1902 he qualified as a university lecturer in the capital of his native region, worked there as a private teacher and from 1903 to 1906 headed a local monastery.

After he decided in 1905 to become a mission doctor, he began studying medicine, graduating in 1913. In 1912 he had married Jewish convert Helene Bresslau (1879-1957), whom he had known for many years. A nurse and a social worker, she later served as his assistant and anesthetist for surgical operations.

Schweitzer planned to spread the Gospel by the example of his Christian labor of healing, rather than through the verbal process of preaching. As Bresslau shared his view of devoting life to humanity, in 1913 they went together to one of France’s African colonies.

In the middle of a rain forest, near a station run by the Paris Missionary Society, a modest hospital was quickly build, financed by donations and Schweitzer’s publications, speeches and concerts in Europe.

After World War I broke out in 1914, Schweitzer and his wife were put under strong supervision by the French military administration, which initially had forbidden them to work.

In 1917 both were taken to France and interned at various locations. Schweitzer had his parents’ former French citizenship reinstated, when in 1918 Alsace was again annexed by France, where he was employed as medical assistant and assistant-pastor.

Their only daughter Rhena (1919-2009), trained as a medical technician, went to Africa to work at her father’s side and after his death took over the operation until 1970.

Only in 1924 was he able to return to Lambaréné. Schweitzer had a new facility commissioned in 1927 near the old one. Both old structures today serve as a museum dedicated to his work. Afterwards he went back and forth several times between both continents.

Bresslau’s health later prevented her full return to work there, though she visited several times. She and Rhena toured the United States, helping to raise funds for their African project. During World War II, she managed to reach Lambaréné. She finally succumbed to a lung disease in Zurich.

The modern compound from 1981 comprises departments of internal medicine, surgery, pediatrics, a maternity and a dentistry clinic as well as malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis research units. It was managed and mostly staffed by Europeans until well into the 21st century.

Essential to Schweitzer’s worldview based on the idea of Reverence for Life, as he thought that Western civilization was decaying because it had abandoned affirmation of life as its ethical foundation.

Despite his selfless dedication to help natives in the middle of nowhere, Schweitzer was still accused of being paternalistic, as his statement “The African is indeed my brother but my junior brother” seems to prove.

Schweitzer also thought that Gabonese independence came too early, without adequate education or accommodation to local circumstances: “No society can go from the primeval directly to an industrial state without losing the leavening that time and an agricultural period allow.”

Nevertheless, the philanthropist expressed harsh criticism of colonialism, which in his opinion basically divided people into two classes: civilized men and others.

In consequence, he considered his work in Africa to be a recompense for the historic guilt of Europeans in other parts of the world. In this sense, he was well ahead of his time, as the recent developments in the West have shown.


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