Schweitzer, Albert (1875 – 1965) German Theologian, Musicologist, Philosopher, and Physician

views updated

Albert Schweitzer (1875 1965)
German theologian, musicologist, philosopher, and physician

Albert Schweitzer was an individual of remarkable depth and diversity. He was born in the Upper Alsace region of what is now Germany. His parents, Louis (an Evangelical Lutheran pastor and musician) and Adele cultivated his inquisitive mind and passion for music. He developed a strong theological background and, under his father's tutelage, studied piano, eventually acting as substitute musician at the church.

As a young adult, Schweitzer pursued extensive studies in philosophy and theology at the University of Strasbourg, where he received doctorate degrees in both fields (1899 and 1900 respectively). He continued to further his interests in music. While on a fellowship in Paris (researching Kant), he also studied organ at the Sorbonne. He began a career as an organist in 1893 and was eventually renowned as expert in the area of organ construction and as one of the finest interpreters and scholars of Johann Sebastian Bach. His multitudinous published works include the respected J. S. Bach: the Musician Poet (1908).

In 1905, after years of pursuing various careersincluding minister, musician, and teacherhe determined to dedicate his work to the benefit of others. In 1913 he and his wife, Helene, traveled to Lambarene in French Equatorial Africa (now Gabon), where they built a hospital on the Ogowe River. At the outbreak of World War I, they were allowed to continue working at the hospital for a time but were then sent to France as prisoners of war (both were German citizens). They were held in an internment camp until 1918. After their release, the Schweitzers remained in France and Albert returned to the pulpit. He also gave organ concerts and lectures. During this time in France he wrote "Philosophy of Civilization" (1923), an essay in which he described his philosophy of "reverence for life." Schweitzer felt that it was the responsibility of all people to "sacrifice a portion of their own lives for others." The Schweitzers returned to Africa in 1924, only to find their hospital overgrown with jungle vegetation. With the assistance of volunteers, the facility was rebuilt, using typical African villages as models.

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, Schweitzer used $33,000 of the Prize money to establish a leper colony near the hospital in Africa. It was not until late 1954 that he gave his Nobel lecture in Oslo. He took advantage of the opportunity to object to war as "a crime of inhumanity." Three more years passed before Schweitzer sent out an impassioned plea to the world in his "Declaration of Conscience," which he read over Oslo radio. He called for citizens to demand a ban of nuclear weapons testing by their governments. His words ignited a series of arms control talks among the superpowers that began in 1958 and, five years later, resulted in a limited but formal test-ban treaty.

Schweitzer received numerous awards and degrees. Among his long list of published works are The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1931), Out of My Life and Thought (1933, autobiography), and The Light Within Us (1959). He died at the age of 90 at Lambarene.

[Kimberley A. Peterson ]



Bentley, J. Albert Schweitzer: The Enigma. New York: Harper Collins, 1992.

Miller, D. C. Relevance of Albert Schweitzer at the Dawn of the Twenty-First Century. Lanham: University Press of America, 1992.

Schweitzer, A. Out of My Life and Thought. New York: Henry Holt, 1990.


Negri, M. "The Humanism of Albert Schweitzer." Humanist 53 (MarchApril 1993): 2631.

About this article

Schweitzer, Albert (1875 – 1965) German Theologian, Musicologist, Philosopher, and Physician

Updated About content Print Article