Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965): World Citizen
In addition to his own intellectual and other works, many volumes have been written about Albert Schweitzer. They portray the personality and multiple facets of this exceptional man. As doctor, musician, pastor, philosopher, writer and lecturer, his medical legacy is the renowned village hospital that he founded in 1913 at Lambar?n? in Gabon.
Biography and bibliography contain numerous citations and reflections offering a vast spectrum of his eventful life and work. In July 1949 on a visit to the United States he was triumphantly received as “the greatest man of the 20th century”. His friend, Albert Einstein (1879-1955), declared “In this sad world of ours, here is a great man”.
Albert Schweitzer remained the simplest of men close to the very poor whom he knew needed him and regarded all as his brothers and sisters. Amongst his many recognitions and honours, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 for humanitarian work. The Prize money contributed to the rapid completion of his leprosarium in Lambar?n? and a year later he delivered his Prize lecture on ‘The problem of peace today’.
Beyond his birth place
Born on 14 January 1875 in Kaysersberg, Alsace, at the time annexed by Germany, Albert Schweitzer belonged to a family with a long tradition of service in music, religion, scholarship and education. His father, Louis Schweitzer, was a Lutheran pastor. From early July the family moved to the nearby village of Gunsbach were his father served as church Minister until his death in 1925. Albert made frequent visits to his home.
From an early age the boy showed a passion and talent for playing the organ. After primary schooling in Gunsbach, he attended State Secondary School in Mulhouse where his study of music and organ lessons continued. He gained international repute as an accomplished organist and an authority on organ construction and reparation.
He attended the University of Strasbourg from 1893 to study theology and philosophy. It was also his first visit to Paris to stay with his two uncles. Part of his theology, philosophy, music and medical studies were carried out in Paris and Berlin. He received a Doctorate in Philosophy in 1899 and in 1900 an advanced degree, or licenciate, in theology. In 1900 he was made preacher at the Church of St. Nicolas, Strasbourg. Among other positions, in 1902 he was Lecturer in the Faculty of Theology, Strasbourg, and began writing a study of Johann-Sebastian Bach that he completed in later years.
Inspired by an article from the Paris Missionary Society on the need for doctors, to general stupefaction, he wrote to friends and relatives of his decision to become a doctor in Equatorial Africa. In 1904 he resigned all his positions to start medical studies.
Between 1905 and 1912 he studied medicine in Strasbourg when he completed preparation of his thesis ‘The psychiatric study of Jesus’ and worked for a year as intern in the hospital. Aged 38 he received degrees with specialization in tropical medicine and surgery. As Protestant minister, philosopher, writer and lecturer, Albert Schweitzer is also credited as first of the “Medecins Sans Frontieres” or Doctors without Frontiers.
On 18 June 1912 he married H?lene Bresslau and they left Gunsbach on 21 March 1913. They arrived on 16 April at the jungle village of Lambar?n? on the river Ogoou? to start the hospital under the aegis of the Paris Missionary Society. It began his monumental work as a medical missionary with long years of labour amongst the poor. Respect for their native customs as well as life in all its forms were foremost amongst his principles. His wife was of great assistance and their first stay in Africa lasted until 1917.
As a German subject in a French colony, in 1917 the couple were returned to France being confined first in military barracks and transferred to internment camps where he spent time writing and in further study. Released in 1918, Albert Schweitzer stayed for six years in Europe preaching in his old church, giving lectures and concerts, taking medical courses and writing. Their daughter Rhena was born in Alsace on 14 January 1919.
He returned to Lambar?n? in 1924 where, except for relatively short periods, he spent the rest of his life. With funds from royalties and his personal appearances fees, and those donated from all parts of the world, by the early 1960s the hospital had been expanded to seventy buildings to take care of 500 patients in residence at any time.
For his 80th birthday he received homage and congratulations from all over the world and in the same year visited a number of European countries. At the end of 1959 he returned again to Lambar?n? for his fourteenth and final visit that lasted nearly five years. On 18 April 1963 there was a celebration for his fifty years in Africa. On his 90th birthday he received visitors from all over the world and continued to work on his projects. In the same year Albert Schweitzer died just before midnight on 4 September 1965.
From its humble beginnings, today the vastly expanded village hospital consists of departments for internal medicine, surgery, paediatrics, obstetrics, dentistry and, more recently, a research unit. It honours the traditions and philosophy of its founder and is administered by the International Foundation for the Albert Schweitzer Hospital.
As world citizen, Albert Schweitzer is honoured with monuments, institutions and public places that bear his name. Notable is his tomb in Lambar?n? where this great man is laid close to those he loved and cared for as his brothers and sisters. A simple cross is marked with Ci git le Dr. Albert SCHWEITZER n? le 14.l.1875, d?c?d? le 4.9.1965. His wife died in Zurich and her ashes are interred in the Lambar?n? hospital grounds.
Note: Acknowledgement is given to all sources of information used in preparation of this article. It follows a second visit to the Albert Schweitzer Cultural Centre at Kaysersberg (the house where Schweitzer was born) with a permanent exhibition of documents concerning Albert Schweitzer and various special exhibits. It displays a video film on the participation and development of work at the Village Hospital in Lambar?n?.