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Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) was an Alsatian-German religious philosopher, musicologist, and medical missionary in Africa. He was known especially for founding the Schweitzer Hospital, which provided unprecedented medical care for the natives of Lambaréné in Gabon.

Albert Schweitzer, the son of an Evangelical Lutheran minister, was born on Jan. 14, 1875, in Kaysersberg, Alsace, which was then under German rule. Albert's early life was both comfortable and happy. One Sunday morning, when he was about 8, he had an experience that helped to shape his life. At the strong urging of another lad, he reluctantly aimed his slingshot at several birds which, as he later wrote, "sang sweetly into the morning sunshine." Moved, he "made a silent vow to miss. At that moment, the sound of church bells began to mingle with the sunshine and the singing of the birds…. For me, it was a voice from heaven. I threw aside my slingshot, shooed the birds away to protect them from my friend's slingshot, and fled home."

When Albert was 10 years old, he went to live with his granduncle and grandaunt in Mulhouse so that he could attend the excellent local school. He graduated from secondary school at the age of 18. During these 8 years he learned directly from his elderly relatives the demanding ethical code and rigorous scholarly outlook of their early-1800s generation.

In 1893 Schweitzer enrolled at the University of Strasbourg, where, until 1913, he enjoyed a brilliant career as student, teacher, and administrator. His main field was theology and philosophy, and in 1899 he won a doctorate in philosophy with a thesis on Immanuel Kant.

Schweitzer also made a profound study of Nietzsche and Tolstoy, recoiling from Nietzsche's adulation of the all-conquering "superman" and being greatly attracted to Tolstoy's doctrine of love and compassion. The definitive influence, however, on Schweitzer was the life of Jesus, to whose message and messiahship he devoted years of research and reflection. His classic work The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906) deals with major scholarly writings on Jesus from the 17th century onward; the volume was well received and quickly became a standard source book.

Renunciation and Dedication

Meanwhile, Schweitzer's biography of J. S. Bach, written in 1905, had also proved an immediate success. At 30 years of age Schweitzer was tall, broad-shouldered, darkly handsome, and a witty, charismatic writer, preacher, and lecturer: clearly, a bright future lay before him. However, one spring morning in 1905, he experienced a stunning religious revelation: it came to him that at some point in the years just ahead he must renounce facile success and devote himself unsparingly to the betterment of mankind's condition.

Accordingly, several years later, Schweitzer threw over his several careers as author, lecturer, and organ recitalist and plunged into the study of medicine—his aim being to go to Africa as a medical missionary. He won his medical degree in 1912. The year before, he had married Helene Bresslau, a professor's daughter who had studied nursing in order to work at his side in Africa; in 1919 the couple had a daughter, Rhena.

Establishment in Africa

In 1913 the Schweitzers journeyed to what was then French Equatorial Africa. There, after various setbacks, they founded the Albert Schweitzer Hospital at Lambaréné, on the Ogooué River, "at the edge of the primeval forest." This area now lies within the independent West African republic of Gabon. Funds were scarce and equipment primitive, but native Africans thronged to the site, and in the decades that followed, many thousands were treated.

Reverence for Life

One hot afternoon in 1915, as he sat on the deck of an ancient steamboat chugging its way up the Ogooué, Schweitzer noticed on a sandbank nearby four hippopotamuses with their young. Instantly, "the phrase Reverence for Life struck me like a flash." He had anticipated this phrase more than 3 decades earlier in his refusal to shoot his slingshot at the sweetly singing birds; now, it became the coping stone of his philosophical system and of his everyday life at the hospital.

Somewhat to Schweitzer's chagrin, the news of his lonely, heroic witness at Lambaréné spread abroad, and he became a world-famous exemplary figure. An American named Larimer Mellon, a member of the wealthy Mellon family, was one of the many whose lives were affected by Schweitzer. Inspired by Schweitzer's example, Mellon, then in his late 30s, returned to college, obtained his medical degree, and with his wife, Gwen, set up the Albert Schweitzer Hospital deep in a primitive rural area of Haiti. Many hundreds of lives were similarly changed by Schweitzer's charismatic witness.

Despite his demanding schedule at Lambaréné, Schweitzer found time to lecture in the United States in 1949, received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, and published in 1957 and 1958 notable appeals to the superpowers in the name of humanity, urging them to renounce nuclear-weapons testing. He died at Lambaréné on Sept. 4, 1965; at the time, he was still working vigorously on the third volume of his monumental Philosophy of Civilization. On his death his medical associates and his daughter, Mrs. Rhena Eckert-Schweitzer, took over direction of the hospital with the aim of carrying out Schweitzer's wish that its facilities be drastically modernized.

Further Reading

The best introduction to Schweitzer's thought and personality is through his own engagingly written autobiographical works: At the Edge of the Primeval Forest (1922), Memoirs of Childhood and Youth (1925), and Out of My Life and Thought (1933). One of the best studies of Schweitzer is George Seaver, Albert Schweitzer: The Man and His Mind (1947). Also valuable are Norman Cousins, Dr. Schweitzer of Lambaréné (1960), and Henry Clark, The Philosophy of Albert Schweitzer (1964).

Lively personal and pictorial introductions to Schweitzer are Erica Anderson, Albert Schweitzer's Gift of Friendship (1964) and The Schweitzer Album: A Portrait in Words and Pictures (1965). Two general, readable studies of Schweitzer are Dr. Joseph F. Montague, The Why of Albert Schweitzer (1965), which includes a bibliography of Schweitzer's writings, and Magnus Ratter, Schweitzer—Ninety Years Wise (1964). Also consult Hermann Hagedorn, The Prophet in the Wilderness (1947; rev. ed. 1962); Erica Anderson, The World of Albert Schweitzer (1955); Robert Payne, The Three Worlds of Albert Schweitzer (1957); and Werner Picht, The Life and Thought of Albert Schweitzer (trans. 1964). □

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Schweitzer, Albert

Albert Schweitzer (äl´bĕrt shvī´tsər), 1875–1965, Alsatian theologian, musician, and medical missionary. Determined to become a medical missionary, he obtained a doctorate in medicine at the Univ. of Strasbourg and in 1913 established a hospital at Lambaréné, Gabon (then in French Equatorial Africa). Except for frequent trips to Europe to raise money and a visit to the United States in 1949 to address the Goethe Festival in Colorado, he remained in Gabon, establishing extensive medical facilities that received financial support throughout the world. Schweitzer was honored in many countries for his work as a scientist and humanitarian, his artistry as an organist, and his contributions as a theologian; he was awarded the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize. His biography of Bach (1905), considered one of the best studies of the master, along with his edition (with C. M. Widor, 1912–14) of Bach's organ music, made him an outstanding authority on Bach. On the Edge of the Primeval Forest (1920, tr. 1922) is an account of his early years at Lambaréné, supplemented later by More from the Primeval Forest (1925, tr.1931) and From My African Notebook (1936, tr. 1938). Schweitzer's philosophy is developed in Philosophy of Civilization (The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization, 1923, tr. 1923; Civilization and Ethics, 1923, tr. 1923; and Reverence for Life, tr. 1969). "Reverence for life" is the term Schweitzer used for a universal concept of ethics. He believed that such an ethics would reconcile the drives of altruism and egoism by requiring a respect for the lives of all other beings and by demanding the highest development of the individual's resources. A profound Christian, Schweitzer was unorthodox in that he rejected the historical infallibility of Jesus while following him spiritually. His theological works include The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906, tr. 1910) and The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1930, tr. 1930).

See his autobiography, Out of My Life and Thoughts (1932, tr. 1933) and Albert Schweitzer: An Anthology (ed. by C. R. Joy, 1947); biographies by J. Berrill (1965), I. L. Ice (1971), G. N. Marshall and D. Poling (1971), and N. Cousins (1960, repr. 1973); study by H. Clark (1962).

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Schweitzer, Albert

Schweitzer, Albert (1875–1965). Christian theologian and mission doctor. A superb musician and organist, he made a name in academic circles when he published Das Messianitats- und Leidensgeheimnis (1901; The Mystery of the Kingdom of God, 1925). In this he argued that ‘Jesus’ is embedded in the interests and presuppositions of the gospel writers, and to an extent, therefore, remains to us as ‘One unknown’. What at least can be said is that Jesus shared the apocalyptic expectations of his contemporaries, and that he saw himself as the one who was to inaugurate the Final Kingdom, not least through his sacrificial suffering. This ‘messianic secret’ was not divulged to any until the so-called ‘Confession at Caesarea Philippi’. His extreme call for moral perfection was unrealistic if understood as a programme for life and history, but not if it was intended as an ‘interim ethic’, to be maintained in the short interval before the inauguration of the kingdom.

Schweitzer developed this perspective further in Von Reimarus zu Wrede … (1906; The Quest for the Historical Jesus, 1910), and in Geschichte der Paulinischen Forschung … (1911; Paul and his Interpreters, 1912). These works set an inescapable agenda for subsequent work on the New Testament; yet his most enduring work was Die Mystik des Apostels Paulus (1930; The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle). Meanwhile a profound experience of the unity of all life, evoking reverence for life, led him to establish a mission hospital at Lambaréné in Gabon, where he based himself for the rest of his life. Although criticized for his stern paternalism, his commitment and his work for reconciliation were recognized with the award of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964.

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Schweitzer, Albert

Schweitzer, Albert (b Kaysersberg, Alsace, 1875; d Lambaréné, Gabon, 1965). Fr. (Alsatian) organist and Bach scholar (also theologian and medical missionary). Org., Strasbourg Bach concerts from 1896 and Paris Bach concerts from 1906. Ed. Bach's org. works (first 5 vols. (1912–14) with Widor, remainder (1954–67) with Nies-Berger). Biography of Bach (in Fr. 1905, rewritten in Ger. 1908; Eng. trans. by E. Newman, 1911). Wrote book on Fr. and Ger. orgs. 1906. Worked as medical missionary in Fr. Congo, returning 1922 to give org. recitals to raise money for mission. Nobel Peace Prize 1952. Hon. OM 1955.

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Schweitzer, Albert

Schweitzer, Albert (1875–1965) Theologian, musician, medical missionary, and philosopher. Schweitzer was born in Alsace, but spent most of his life in Gabon (then French Equatorial Africa), where he founded the Lambaréné Hospital in 1913. He was honoured as a scientist and humanitarian, and as an organist and an expert on J. S. Bach. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize. His works include Kant's Philosophy of Religion (1899) and Out of My Life and Thought (1931).

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