Dr. Albert Schweitzer was the preeminent Christian medical missionary in Africa, a towering figure in twentieth-century Protestant thought and philosophy, and an accomplished musician. Although his reputation had been somewhat eclipsed since the end of the colonial period, during his lifetime Schweitzer was one of the most respected and honored personalities in the world. In 1952 he received the Nobel Prize for being an exemplar of the “Brotherhood of Nations”.
Schweitzer, born in Alsace under German governance, was the son of a Reformed pastor. After studies at the University of Strasbourg, where he received doctorates in both philosophy and theology, he became pastor of Strasbourg’s St. Nicholas Church. He had interspersed his academic work with study of the organ and was simultaneously appointed organist of the Bach Society of Paris.
In 1905 he published J.S. Bach: The Musician-Poet, in which he presented Bach as a religious mystic whose music was an entry point to understanding nature’s cosmic forces. Schweitzer’s reputation as the foremost interpreter of Bach was strengthened, and the book was an immediate success. The following year he published The Quest of the Historical Jesus, which established Schweitzer as a world figure in theology and which has been a benchmark in modern theology ever since. In addition, Schweitzer was a popular, witty, and charismatic preacher with a devoted following.
During this period, Schweitzer was evolving what was to become the dominant theme of his life and thought - “reverence for life”- an ethical norm that he extended to all life and all social forms, including civilization itself. In 1905 his thinking culminated in a religious conversion that turned him away from his worldly success toward a life of Christian service. Along with his teaching and preaching, he began studying to become a medical missionary and to live out what had become his dominant philosophy. Subsequently, he met Hélène Bresslau, an artist and musician who gave up her career to become a nurse and join him. They married in 1911, a year before Schweitzer took his M.D. In 1913 they departed for Gabon, in what was then French Equatorial Africa, sponsored by the Paris Evangelical Mission Society.
The Schweitzers built a hospital at Lambaréné, working alongside African laborers. In 1917 and 1918 they were interned in France because of their German background, and they remained there until 1924. Schweitzer used the period for reflection, publishing the first volume of his Philosophy of Civilization in 1923. In this work, he offered a complete statement of his ethic on reverence for life. It argued that all forms of life contain a force that impels them toward their completeness or perfection - the glory of creation. This ethic of life imposes a duty on humanity, whose striving is conscious, to enter into the lives of other, lower forms. Schweitzer sums up: “To him all life as such is sacred. He shatters no ice crystal that sparkles in the sun, tears no leaf from its tree, breaks no flower, and is careful not to crush any insect as he walks”.
In 1924, by then fully grounded in his approach to his mission, Schwietzer returned to Lambaréné, to find that his hospital had decayed and had been partially reclaimed by the jungle. He rebuilt several miles upstream on the Ogowe River. The hospital’s hallmark was simplicity, and Schweitzer became an early advocate of what would later be called appropriate technology. The hospital operated in what Schweitzer perceived as a style suitable for an African setting. He avoided a Western atmosphere, which he felt only separated Africans from medical care and reinforced the power of local priests and traditional healers. Families were encouraged to live with the patients, who were housed in a number of small structures built around the hospital. Relatives prepared the meals, often keeping goats and other small animals to provide milk or meat.
At its height, there were 350 patients (plus relatives), as well as 150 patients in a leper colony built a few years after the hospital. There were 30 to 40 white doctors as well as nurses and African workers. Schweitzer supported this staff from his own income, which he supplemented by highly successful Bach recordings and organ recitals in Europe. Benefactors, including the Mellon family and the Unitarian-Universalist Church, also supported the hospital. Amid all the activity at Lambaréné, Schweitzer continued editing Bach’s organ works and wrote several books on theology.
Schweitzer’s approach was autocratic and paternalistic, and he had a low expectation of Africans’ intellectual capability. Nevertheless, he always showed showed respect for both workers and patients and was beloved by many. He held that “ethics are pity”, and he seemed to have no illusions about the equality of traditional and Western civilization. His biblical model came from the parable of Lazarus and the rich man. Schweitzer saw himself as the rich man at the table, obligated to share with the poor beggar what he had. He criticized the exploitation of Africans but primarily because he saw it as a sign of the civilized West’s moral failure rather than because of an inherent sense of injustice.
Schweitzer’s reverence for life was not absolute and did not include the concept of “rights”. He was convinced of the Darwinist principle of natural selection and conceded that people kill that which threatens them. One can kill either mercifully or ruthlessly, but mercy must always be chosen, he believed. This was an ethic for the superior, benevolent protector of the inferior. When, in the 1950s, Schweitzer opposed nuclear testing, it was because of its effects on plant and animal life, not in opposition to the use of nuclear weapons, if that should be necessary. His viewpoint was a colonial perspective, which was both refined and paternalistic. Schweitzer died in Lambaréné while still active and is buried there. He left instructions that the hospital be modernized, and his daughter has continued his work.
Norbert C. Brockman
Lipschutz, Mark R., and R. Kent Rasmussen. Dictionary of African Historical Biography. 2nd edition. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.
The New Encyclopedia Britannica. 15th edition. Chicago, IL, 1988.
Encyclopedia of World Biography. Palatine, IL: Heraty, 17 volumes, 1973-1992.
Cousins, Norman. Albert Schweitzer’s Mission: Healing and Peace *(1985); Schweitzer, Albert. *Out of My life and Thought (1933).
This article is reproduced, with permission, from *An African Biographical Dictionary, *copyright © 1994, edited by Norbert C. Brockman, Santa Barbara, California. All rights reserved.