Albert Schweitzer (1875 – 1965)

20141124-7

Dr. Albert Schweitzer in 1955

 

Albert Schweitzer was an amazingly accomplished Renaissance Man of the 20th Century, with the talent, energy and drive of twenty. His search for the truth was focused and relentless; a life worth living. He was a theologian, organist, philosopher, physician, and medical missionary in Africa. Schweitzer was born in the province of Alsace-Lorraine, at that time part of the German Empire, but considered himself French and wrote mostly in French. Schweitzer, a Lutheran, challenged both the secular view of Jesus as depicted by historical-critical methodology current at his time in certain academic circles, as well as the traditional Christian view.

 

Albert Schweitzer received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize for his philosophy of “Reverence for Life“, expressed in many ways, but most famously in founding and sustaining the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambarene, now in Gabon, west central Africa (then French Equatorial Africa). As a music scholar and organist, he studied the music of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach and influenced the Organ reform movement.

 

Born in Kaysersberg, Schweitzer spent his childhood in the village of Gunsbach, Alsace , where his father, the local Lutheran-Evangelical pastor, taught him how to play music. Long disputed, the predominantly German-speaking region of Alsace or Elsass was annexed by Germany in 1871; after World War I, it was reintegrated into France. The tiny village is home to the Association Internationale Albert Schweitzer (AIAS). The medieval parish church of Gunsbach was shared by the Protestant and Catholic congregations, which held their prayers in different areas at different times on Sundays. This compromise arose after the Protestant Reformation and the Thirty Years War.

 

Schweitzer grew up in this exceptional environment of religious tolerance, and developed the belief that true Christianity should always work towards a unity of faith and purpose. His home language was an Alsatian dialect of German. At Mulhouse high school he got his “Abitur“ (the certificate at the end of secondary education), in 1893. He studied organ there from 1885 to 1893 with Eugene Munch, organist of the Protestant Temple. In 1893 he played for the French organist Charles-Marie Widor (at Saint-Sulpice, Paris), for whom Johann Sebastian Bach’s organ-music contained a mystic sense of the eternal. Widor, deeply impressed, agreed to teach Schweitzer without fee, and a great and influential friendship was begun. From 1893 he studied Protestant theology at the Kaiser Wilhelm University of Strasburg. There he also received instruction in piano and counterpoint from professor Gustav Jacobsthal, and associated closely with Ernest Munch (the brother of his former teacher), organist of St William church, who was also a passionate admirer of J.S. Bach’s music.

 

Schweitzer served his one year compulsory military service in 1894. In 1898 he went back to Paris to write a PhD dissertation on The Religious Philosophy of Kant at the Sorbonne. He also studied piano at that time. He completed his theology degree in 1899 and published his PhD thesis at the University of T?bingen in 1899. In 1899 Schweitzer became a deacon at the church of Saint Nicholas in Strasburg, and in 1900, with the completion of his licentiate in theology, he was ordained as curate. In the following year he became provisional Principal of the Theological College of Saint Thomas (from which he had just graduated), and in 1903 his appointment was made permanent. Beginning in the mid-1890s, Schweitzer formed the inner resolve that it was needful for him as a Christian to repay to the world something for the happiness which it had given to him. As a result, he decided that he would pursue his younger interests until the age of thirty and then give himself to serving humanity, with Jesus serving as his example. In The Quest, Schweitzer reviewed all former work on the “historical Jesus“ back to the late 18th century. He showed that the image of Jesus had changed with the times and outlooks of the various authors, and gave his own synopsis and interpretation of the previous century’s findings. He maintained that the life of Jesus must be interpreted in the light of Jesus’ own convictions, which reflected late Jewish eschatology. Schweitzer believed that Christianity began as a Jewish apocalyptic movement as evidenced by the teachings of the Historical Jesus. Not only did he preach he would rise from the grave, but that he would also ascend to the Heaven and one day return to judge and rule over the world.

 

Schweitzer rapidly gained prominence as a musical scholar and organist, dedicated also to the rescue, restoration and study of historic pipe organs. With theological insight, he interpreted the use of pictorial and symbolical representation in J. S. Bach’s religious music. He wrote a pamphlet “The Art of Organ Building and Organ Playing in Germany and France,“ which in 1906, was republished with an appendix on the state of the organ-building industry, which effectively launched the 20th-century Orgelbewegung. The Organ Reform Movement or Orgelbewegung (also called the Organ Revival Movement) was an early 20th-century trend in pipe organ building, originating in Germany. In 1909 he addressed the Third Congress of the International Society of Music at Vienna on the subject. In 1905, Widor and Schweitzer were among the six musicians who founded the Paris Bach Society, a choir dedicated to performing J.S. Bach’s music, for whose concerts Schweitzer took the organ part regularly until 1913. He was also appointed organist for the Bach Concerts of the Orfeo Catala at Barcelona and often travelled there for that purpose. Bach Preludes with Schweitzer’s analyses, were to be worked on in Africa: but these were never completed, perhaps because for him they were inseparable from his evolving theological thought. On departure for Lambarene, Africa, in 1913 Schweitzer was presented with a pedal piano, a piano with pedal attachments (to operate like an organ pedal-keyboard). Built especially for the tropics, it was delivered by river in a huge dug-out canoe to Lambarene, packed in a zinc-lined case. At first he regarded his new life as a renunciation of his art, and fell out of practice: but after some time he resolved to study and learn by heart the works of Bach, Mendelssohn, Widor, Cesar Franck, and Max Reger systematically. It became his custom to play during the lunch hour and on Sunday afternoons. Schweitzer’s pedal piano was still in use at Lambarene in 1946. And according to a visitor, the old, dilapidated piano-organ was still being played by Dr. Schweitzer in 1962 and stories told of “his fingers were still lively“ on the old instrument at 88 years of age. Schweitzer developed a technique for recording the performances of Bach’s music. Known as “The Schweitzer Technique“, it is a slight improvement on what is commonly known as mid-side. The technique has since been used to record many modern instruments.

 

At the age of 30, in 1905, Schweitzer answered the call of “The Society of the Evangelist Missions of Paris“ which was looking for a medical doctor. However, the committee of this French Missionary Society was not ready to accept his offer, considering his Lutheran theology to be “incorrect“. He could easily have obtained a place in a German Evangelical mission, but wished to follow the original call despite the doctrinal difficulties. Amid a hail of protests from his friends, family and colleagues, he resigned his post and re-entered the University as a student in a three-year course towards the degree of a Doctorate in Medicine, a subject in which he had little knowledge or previous aptitude. He planned to spread the Gospel by the example of his Christian labor of healing, rather than through the verbal process of preaching, and believed that this service should be acceptable within any branch of Christian teaching. Even in his study of medicine, and through his clinical course, Schweitzer pursued the ideal of the philosopher-scientist. By extreme application and hard work, he completed his studies successfully at the end of 1911. His medical degree dissertation was another work on the historical Jesus, The Psychiatric Study of Jesus.

 

In June 1912, Schweitzer married Helene Bresslau, daughter of the Jewish pan-Germanist historian Harry Bresslau. In that same year, now armed with a medical degree, Schweitzer made a definite proposal to go as a medical doctor to work at his own expense in the Paris Missionary Society’s mission at Lambarene on the Ogooue river, in what is now Gabon, in Africa (then a French colony). He refused to attend a committee to inquire into his doctrine, but met each committee member personally and was at last accepted. Through concerts and other fund-raising, he was ready to equip a small hospital. In Spring 1913, he and his wife and son Peter, set off to establish a hospital (Albert Schweitzer Hospital) near an already existing mission post. The site was nearly 200 miles (14 days by raft) upstream from the mouth of the Ogooue at Port Gentil (Cape Lopez. In the first nine months, he and his wife had about 2,000 patients to examine, some travelling many days and hundreds of kilometers to reach him. In addition to injuries, he was often treating severe sand flea and crawcraw sores, framboesia (yaws), tropical eating sores, heart disease, tropical dysentery, tropical malaria, sleeping sickness, leprosy, fevers, strangulated hernias, necrosis, abdominal tumors and chronic constipation and nicotine poisoning, while also attempting to deal with deliberate poisonings, fetishism and fear of cannibalism among the Mbahouin.

 

Schweitzer’s wife, Helene Schweitzer, was an anesthetist for surgical operations. After briefly occupying a shed formerly used as a chicken hut, in autumn 1913 they built their first hospital of corrugated iron, with two 13-foot rooms (consulting room and operating theatre) and with a dispensary and sterilizing room in spaces below the broad eaves. The waiting room and dormitory (42 by 20 feet) were built, like native huts, of unhewn logs along a 30-yard path leading from the hospital to the landing-place. The Schweitzers had their own bungalow and employed as their assistant Joseph, a French-speaking Galoa (Mpongwe) who first came as a patient. When World War I broke out in summer of 1914, Schweitzer and his wife, Germans in a French colony, were put under supervision at Lambarene by the French military, where Schweitzer continued his work. In 1917, exhausted by over four years’ work and by tropical anaemia, they were taken to Bordeaux and interned first in Garaison and then from March 1918 in Saint-Remy-de-Provence. In July 1918, after being transferred to his home in Alsace, he was a free man again. At this time Schweitzer, born a German citizen, had his parents’ former (pre-1871) French citizenship reinstated and became a French citizen. Then, working as medical assistant and assistant-pastor in Strasbourg, he advanced his project on The Philosophy of Civilization, which had occupied his mind since 1900. By 1920, his health recovering, he was giving organ recitals and doing other fund-raising work to repay borrowings and raise funds for returning to Gabon. In 1922, he delivered the Dale Memorial Lectures in Oxford University, and from these in the following year appeared Volumes I and II of his great work, The Decay and Restoration of Civilization and Civilization and Ethics. The two remaining volumes, on The World-View of Reverence for Life and a fourth on the Civilized State, were never completed.

 

In 1924, he returned without his wife but with an Oxford undergraduate, Noel Gillespie, as assistant. Everything was heavily decayed, and building and doctoring progressed together for months. He now had salvarsan for treating syphilitic ulcers and framboesia. Additional medical staff, nurse (Miss) Kottmann and Dr. Victor Nessmann, joined him in 1924, and Dr. Mark Lauterberg in 1925; the growing hospital was manned by native orderlies. Later Dr. Trensz replaced Nessmann, and Martha Lauterberg and Hans Muggenstorm joined them. The original assistant, Joseph also returned. In 1925-6, new hospital buildings were constructed, so that the site became like a village. The onset of famine and a dysentery epidemic created fresh problems. Much of the building work was carried out with the help of local people and patients. Drug advances for sleeping sickness included Germaninand tryparsamide. Dr. Trensz conducted experiments showing that the non-amoebic strain of dysentery was caused by a paracholera vibrion (facultative anaerobic bacteria). With the new hospital built and the medical team established, Schweitzer returned to Europe in 1927, this time leaving a functioning hospital at work.

 

He was there again from 1929 to 1932. Gradually his opinions and concepts became acknowledged, not only in Europe, but worldwide. There was a further period of work in 1935. In January 1937, he returned again to Lambarene and continued working there throughout World War II. Schweitzer considered his work as a medical missionary in Africa to be his response to Jesus’ call to become “fishers of men“ but also as a small recompense for the historic guilt of European colonizers. He wrote:

 

“Who can describe the injustice and cruelties that in the course of centuries they [the colored peoples] have suffered at the hands of Europeans? If a record could be compiled of all that has happened between the white and the colored races, it would make a book containing numbers of pages which the reader would have to turn over unread because their contents would be too horrible.“

 

Schweitzer was one of colonialism’s harshest critics. In a sermon that he preached on 6 January 1905, before he had told anyone of his plans to dedicate the rest of his life to work as a doctor in Africa, he said:

 

“Our culture divides people into two classes: civilized men, a title bestowed on the persons who do the classifying; and others, who have only the human form, who may perish or go to the dogs for all the ‘civilized men’ care. “Oh, this ‘noble’ culture of ours! It speaks so piously of human dignity and human rights and then disregards this dignity and these rights of countless millions and treads them underfoot, only because they live overseas or because their skins are of different color or because they cannot help themselves. This culture does not know how hollow and miserable and full of glib talk it is, how common it looks to those who follow it across the seas and see what it has done there, and this culture has no right to speak of personal dignity and human rights“ “I will not enumerate all the crimes that have been committed under the pretext of justice. People robbed native inhabitants of their land, made slaves of them, let loose the scum of mankind upon them. Think of the atrocities that were perpetrated upon people made subservient to us, how systematically we have ruined them with our alcoholic ‘gifts’, and everything else we have done. We decimate them, and then, by the stroke of a pen, we take their land so they have nothing left at all. “If all this oppression and all this sin and shame are perpetrated under the eye of the German God, or the American God, or the British God, and if our states do not feel obliged first to lay aside their claim to be ‘Christian’ – then the name of Jesus is blasphemed and made a mockery.“

 

Schweitzer was nonetheless, sometimes accused of being paternalistic, colonialist and racist in his attitude towards Africans when he wrote things like: “No society can go from the primeval directly to an industrial state without losing the leavening that time and an agricultural period allow.“ However, in 2014, we know that the hope for democracy during the so-called “Arab Spring,“ didn’t work because of an absence of a political infrastructure in country after country. Schweitzer’s use of the word “brother“ at all was, for a European of the early 20th century, an unusual expression of human solidarity between whites and blacks. Later in life he became more convinced that “modern civilization“ was actually inferior to or the same as previous cultures in terms of morality. The keynote of Schweitzer’s personal philosophy, which he considered to be his greatest contribution, was the idea of Reverence for Life. He thought that Western civilization was decaying because it had abandoned affirmation of life as its ethical foundation.

 

In the Preface to Civilization and Ethics(1923) he argued that Western philosophy from Descartes to Kant had set out to explain the objective world expecting that humanity would be found to have a special meaning within it. But no such meaning was found, and the rational, life-affirming optimism of the Age of Enlightenment began to evaporate. A rift opened between this world-view, as material knowledge, and the life-view, understood as Will, expressed in the pessimist philosophies from Schopenhauer onward. Scientific materialism (advanced by Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin) portrayed an objective world process devoid of ethics, entirely an expression of the will-to-live. Schweitzer wrote, “True philosophy must start from the most immediate and comprehensive fact of consciousness, and this may be formulated as follows: ‘I am life which wills to live, and I exist in the midst of life which wills to live.’“ In nature one form of life must always prey upon another. However, human consciousness holds an awareness of, and sympathy for, the will of other beings to live. An ethical human strives to escape from this contradiction so far as possible. For Schweitzer, mankind had to accept that objective reality is ethically neutral. It could then affirm a new Enlightenment through spiritual rationalism, by giving priority to volition or ethical will as the primary meaning of life. Mankind had to choose to create the moral structures of civilization: the world-view must derive from the life-view, not vice-versa. Respect for life, overcoming coarser impulses and hollow doctrines, leads the individual to live in the service of other people and of every living creature. In contemplation of the will-to-life, respect for the life of others becomes the highest principle and the defining purpose of humanity. The laying down of the commandment to not kill and to not damage is one of the greatest events in the spiritual history of mankind.

 

 

20141124-8

The Schweitzer house and Museum at Konigsfeld in the Black Forest.

 

After the birth of their daughter (Rhena Schweitzer Miller), Albert’s wife, Helene Schweitzer was no longer able to live in Lambarene owing to her health. In 1923 the family moved to Konigsfeld im Schwarzwald, Baden-Wurttemberg, where Schweitzer was building a house for the family. This house is now maintained as a Schweitzer museum. From 1939-48 he stayed in Lambarene, unable to go back to Europe because of the war. Three years after the end of World War II, in 1948, he returned for the first time to Europe and kept traveling back and forth (and once to the USA) as long as he was able. During his return visits to his home village of Gunsbach, Schweitzer continued to make use of the family house, which after his death became an Archive and Museum to his life and work. His life was portrayed in the 1952 movie Il est minuit, Docteur Schweitzer.

 

The Nobel Peace Prize of 1952 was awarded to Dr. Albert Schweitzer. His “The Problem of Peace“ lecture is considered one of the best speeches ever given. From 1952 until his death he worked against nuclear tests and nuclear weapons with Albert Einstein, Otto Hahn and Bertrand Russell. In 1957 and 1958 he broadcast four speeches over Radio Oslo which were published in Peace or Atomic War. In 1957, Schweitzer was one of the founders of The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy. On 23 April 1957, Schweitzer made his “Declaration of Conscience“ speech; it was broadcast to the world over Radio Oslo, pleading for the abolition of nuclear weapons. He ended his speech, saying: “The end of further experiments with atom bombs would be like the early sunrays of hope which suffering humanity is longing for.“

 

Weeks prior to his death, an American film crew was allowed to visit Schweitzer and Drs. Muntz and Friedman, both Holocaust survivors, to record his work and daily life at the hospital. The film The Legacy of Albert Schweitzer, narrated by Henry Fonda, was produced by Warner Brothers. In 1955 he was made an honorary member of the Order of Merit by Queen Elizabeth II. He was also a chevalier of the Military and Hospitaller Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem. Schweitzer died on 4 September 1965 at his beloved hospital in Lambarene, Gabon. His grave, on the banks of the Ogooue River, is marked by a cross he made himself.

 

Schweizer’s cousin Anne-Marie Schweitzer Sartre, was the mother of Jean-Paul Sartre. Her father, Charles Schweitzer, was the older brother of Albert Schweitzer’s father, Louis Th?ophile. The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship was founded in 1940 by Schweitzer to unite U.S. supporters in filling the gap in support for his Hospital when his European supply lines was cut off by war, and continues to support the Lambarene Hospital today. Schweitzer, however, considered his ethic of Reverence for Life, not his Hospital, his most important legacy, saying that his Lambarene Hospital was just “my own improvisation on the theme of Reverence for Life. Everyone can have their own Lambarene.“

 

Today ASF helps large numbers of young Americans in health-related professional fields find or create “their own Lambarene“ in the U.S. or internationally. ASF selects and supports nearly 250 new U.S. and Africa Schweitzer Fellows each year from over 100 of the leading U.S. schools of medicine, nursing, public health, and every other health-related field (including music, law, and divinity), helping launch them on lives of Schweitzer-spirited service. The peer-supporting lifelong network of “Schweitzer Fellows for Life“ numbered over 2,000 members in 2008, and is growing by nearly 1,000 every four years. Nearly 150 of these Schweitzer Fellows have served at the Hospital in Lambarene, for three-month periods during their last year of medical school. The International Albert Schweitzer Prize was first awarded on 29 May 2011 to Eugen Drewermann and the physician couple Rolf and Raphaela Maibach in Konigsfeld im Schwarzwald, where Schweitzer’s former residence now houses the Albert-Schweitzer Museum.

 

Comments

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.