Albert Schweitzer, M.D., OM, (January 14, 1875 – September 4, 1965) was an Alsatian theologian, musician, philosopher, and physician. He was born in Kaysersberg in Alsace-Lorraine, a bilingual Romano-Germanic region which France regained from Germany after World War I. Schweitzer challenged both the secular view of historical Jesus current at his time and the traditional Christian view, depicting a Jesus who expected the imminent end of the world. He received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 for his philosophy of "reverence for life", expressed in many ways, but most famously in founding and sustaining the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambaréné, now in Gabon, west central Africa (then French Equatorial Africa) .
Born in Kaysersberg, Schweitzer spent his childhood in the village of Gunsbach, Alsace, where his father, the local Lutheran pastor, taught him how to play music. At the time the region was part of Germany; it is now part of France, and the tiny village, now spelled Gunsbach, is home to the Association Internationale Albert Schweitzer (AIAS). The Gunsbach parish church was of a special Protestant-Catholic kind found particularly in Alsace: it was shared by the two congregations, which held their prayers in different areas of the same church at different times on Sundays. Schweitzer, the pastor's son, 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.
Schweitzer's home languages were Alsatian (a local Germanic dialect) and French. He learned standard German at school. At Mühlhausen high school he got his "Abitur" (the German certificate at the end of secondary education), in 1893. He studied organ there from 1885-1893 with Eugène Munch, organist of the Protestant Temple, who inspired Schweitzer with his profound enthusiasm for Richard Wagner's music. In 1893 he played for the French organist Charles-Marie Widor (at Saint-Sulpice, Paris), for whom 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 Universität of Strasbourg in his native Alsace. 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 Bach's music. He had a year's service in 1894 as a soldier. Schweitzer saw many Wagner operas at Strasbourg (under Otto Lohse), but in 1896 he scraped together funds to visit Bayreuth to see Der Ring des Nibelungen and Parsifal, and was deeply affected. Soon afterwards he visited the new organ in the Liederhalle at Stuttgart, and, appalled by its lack of clarity, experienced another great realization. In 1898 he went back to Paris to write a Ph.D. dissertation on The Religious Philosophy of Kant at the Sorbonne, and to study in earnest with Widor. Here he often met with the elderly Aristide Cavaillé-Coll. He completed his theology degree in 1899 and published his Ph.D. at the University of Tübingen in 1899.
The exposition of these ideas, encouraged by Widor and Munch, became Schweitzer's next task, and appeared in the masterly study (J. S. Bach: Le Musicien-Poète) written in French and published in 1905. During its preparation he became a friend of Cosima Wagner (then in Strasbourg), with whom he had many theological and musical conversations, exploring his view of Bach's descriptive music, and playing the major Chorale Preludes for her at the Temple Neuf. There was a great demand for a German edition, but instead he rewrote it in two volumes (J. S. Bach) in German, which were published in 1908, and in an English translation by Ernest Newman in 1911. Schweitzer's interpretative approach greatly influenced the modern understanding of Bach's music. He became a welcome guest at the Villa Wahnfried.
His pamphlet "The Art of Organ Building and Organ Playing in Germany and France" (1906, republished with an appendix on the state of the organ-building industry in 1927) effectively launched the twentieth-century Orgelbewegung, which turned away from romantic extremes and rediscovered baroque principles — although this sweeping reform movement in organ building eventually went further than Schweitzer himself had intended. In 1909 he addressed the Third Congress of the International Society of Music at Vienna on the subject. Having circulated a questionnaire among players and organ-builders in several European countries, he produced a very considered report. This provided the basis for the International Regulations for Organ Building. He envisaged instruments in which the French late-romantic full-organ sound should work integrally with the English and German romantic reed pipes, and with the classical Alsace Silbermann organ resources and baroque flue pipes, all in registers regulated (by stops) to access distinct voices in fugue or counterpoint capable of combination without loss of distinctness: different voices singing together in the same music.
In 1905 Widor and Schweitzer were among the six musicians who founded the Paris Bach Society, a choir dedicated to performing 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 Orféo Català at Barcelona and often travelled there for the purpose. He and Widor collaborated on a new edition of Bach's organ works, with detailed analysis of each work in three languages (English, French, German). Schweitzer, who insisted that the score should show Bach's notation with no additional markings, wrote the commentaries for the Preludes and Fugues, and Widor those for the Sonatas and Concertos: six volumes were published in 1912-14. Three more, to contain the Chorale 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 Lambaréné in 1913 he was presented with 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 Lambaréné, packed in a zinc-lined case. At first he regarded his new life as a renunciation of his art, and fell out of practise: but after some time he resolved to study and learn by heart the works of Bach, Mendelssohn, Widor, César Franck, and Max Reger systematically. It became his custom to play during the lunch hour and on Sunday afternoons. Schweitzer's piano-organ was still in use at Lambaréné in 1946.
In 1899 Schweitzer became a deacon at the church Saint-Nicolas of Strasbourg. In 1900, with the completion of his licentiate in theology, he was ordained as curate, and that year he witnessed the Oberammergau Passion Play. 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.
Since the mid-1890s Schweitzer had 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, and he determined that he would pursue his younger interests until the age of thirty and then give himself to the work of Christ. As a young theologian he published The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), by which he gained a great reputation. In this book, he interpreted the life of Jesus in the light of Jesus' own eschatological convictions. Schweitzer demonstrated that 19th century "liberal lives of Jesus" produced by those who sought to reimage Jesus through historical study were reflections of the authors' own historical and social contexts. This work effectively ended for decades the Quest for the Historical Jesus as a subdiscipline of New Testament studies, until the development of the so-called "Second Quest," among whose notable exponents was Rudolf Bultmann's student Ernst Käsemann. The original edition was translated into English by William Montgomery and published in 1910. A second German edition was published in 1913, containing theologically significant revisions and expansions. This revised edition did not appear in English until 2001.
At the age of 30, in 1905, he answered the call of "The Society Of The Evangelist Missions of Paris" who were looking for a Medical Doctor. However, the committee of this (Roman Catholic) French Missionary Society was not ready to accept his offer, considering that his Lutheran theology was "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 punishing seven-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 labour of healing, instead of through the verbal process of preaching, and believed that this service should be acceptable within any branch of Christian teaching.
Schweitzer established his reputation further as a New Testament scholar with other theological studies including his medical degree dissertation, The Psychiatric Study of Jesus (1911). The same period saw his first (of several) published study of the apostle Paul, Paul and his Interpreters, thoughts which reached maturity in The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1930). This examined the eschatological beliefs of Paul and (through this) the message of the New Testament. 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. In June 1912 he married Helene Bresslau, daughter of the Jewish pan-Germanist historian Harry Bresslau.
Schweitzer's theology leans towards the kind of theology espoused in Liberal Christianity. He wrote that Jesus and his followers expected the imminent end of the world.
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 sandflea and crawcraw sores (washing with mercuric chloride), framboesia (using arseno-benzol injections), tropical eating sores (cleaning and potassium permanganate), heart disease (treated with digitalin), tropical dysentery (emetine (syrup of ipecac) and arseno-benzol), tropical malaria (quinine and Arrhenal (arsenic)), sleeping sickness, treated at that time with atoxyl, leprosy (chaulmoogra oil), fevers, strangulated hernias (surgery), necrosis, abdominal tumours and chronic constipation and nicotine poisoning, while also attempting to deal with deliberate poisonings, fetishism and fear of cannibalism among the Mbahouin.
Frau Schweitzer was anaesthetist for surgical operations, using chloroform and omnipon, a synthesized morphine derivative. 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 sterilising 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 Lambaréné (where work continued) by the French military. 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-Rémy-de-Provence. In July 1918, after having been transferred via Switzerland to his home in the Alsace, he was a free man again. At this time Schweitzer, born a German citizen, obtained French nationality. 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 Frau Schweitzer 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 Frl. 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. Joseph also returned. In 1925-6 new hospital buildings were constructed, and also a ward for white patients, 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 Germanin and 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 1929-1932. 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 Lambaréné, and continued working there throughout the Second War.
In the Preface to Civilization and Ethics (1923) he outlines the proposition that Western philosophy from Descartes to Kant set out to define the objective and material world in the optimistic expectation of discovering a real and significant meaning for the goal of man and humanity within it. The rationalist life-affirmation of the Enlightenment, however, foundered because no proof of that meaning was forthcoming. Instead, scientific materialism revealed an objective world-process which was devoid of ethics, entirely an expression of the will-to-live. Then occurred a divorce between this world-view, as knowledge, and the life-view, as volition (Will) expressed in the pessimist philosophies from Schopenhauer on. Schweitzer stated that mankind had to accept this stark (post-Darwinian) material reality, and, in a rebirth of spiritual rationalism (a new Renaissance or Enlightenment) to affirm it by giving priority to volition, to ethical will as life-view, in order to define and build the structures of civilization. Mankind must choose to create the moral structures of civilization: the world-view must derive from the life-view, not vice-versa. Because the world is an expression of will-to-life, respect for life has to become the highest principle.
In a similar exaltation of life to that of Friedrich Nietzsche (a recently influential philosopher), Schweitzer followed the same line as that of the Russian Leo Tolstoy. Some compared his teaching to Francis of Assisi, a comparison he did not contest. He wrote:
Life and love in his view are based on, and follow out of the same principle: respect for every manifestation of life, and a personal, spiritual relationship towards the universe. Ethics, according to Schweitzer, consists in the compulsion to show toward the will-to-live of each and every being the same reverence as one does to one's own. Circumstances where we apparently fail to satisfy this compulsion should not lead us to defeatism, since the will-to-live renews itself again and again, as an outcome of an evolutionary necessity and a phenomenon with a spiritual dimension.
However, as Schweitzer himself pointed out, it is neither impossible nor difficult to spend one's life and not follow it: the history of world philosophies and religions shows many instances of denial of the principle of reverence for life. He points to the prevailing philosophy in the European Middle Ages, and the Indian Brahminic philosophy as examples. Nevertheless, he contends that this kind of attitude lacks genuineness. The will to live is naturally both parasitic and antagonistic towards other forms of life. Only in the thinking being has the will to live become conscious of other wills to live, and desirous of solidarity with it. This solidarity, however, cannot be brought about, because human life does not escape the puzzling and horrible circumstance that it must live at the cost of other life. But as an ethical being one strives to escape whenever possible from this necessity, and to put a stop to this disunion of the Will to live, so far as it is within one's power.
Schweitzer advocated the concept of reverence for life widely throughout his entire life. The historical Enlightenment waned and corrupted itself, Schweitzer held, because it has not been well enough grounded in thought, but compulsively followed the ethical will-to-live. Hence, he looked forward to a renewed and more profound Renaissance and Enlightenment, "in the course of which humanity will discover that the ethical impulse is the highest truth and the highest purposiveness... Albert Schweitzer nourished hope in a humankind that is more profoundly aware of its position in the Universe. His optimism was based in "belief in truth". "The spirit generated by [conceiving of] truth is greater than the force of circumstances." He persistently emphasized the necessity to think, rather than merely acting on basis of passing impulses or by following the most widespread opinions.
"Never for a moment do we lay aside our mistrust of the ideals established by society, and of the convictions which are kept by it in circulation. We always know that society is full of folly and will deceive us in the matter of humanity. […] humanity meaning consideration for the existence and the happiness of individual human beings.
Respect for life, resulting from contemplation on one's own conscious will to live, leads the individual to live in the service of other people and of every living creature. Schweitzer was much respected for putting his theory into practice in his own life.
Rather than being a supporter of colonialism, Schweitzer was one of its harshest critics. In a sermon that he preached on January 6, 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:
Schweitzer was nonetheless still sometimes accused of being paternalistic or colonialist in his attitude towards Africans, and in some ways his views did differ from many liberals of the 1960s. For instance, he thought Gabonese independence came too early, without adequate education or accommodation to local circumstances. Edgar Berman quotes Schweitzer speaking these lines in 1960:
Chinua Achebe has quoted Schweitzer as saying: "The African is indeed my brother but my junior brother, which Achebe criticized him for, though Achebe seems to acknowledge that 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 his life, Schweitzer was quoted as saying: "The time for speaking of older and younger brothers has passed.
The journalist James Cameron visited Lambaréné in 1953 (when Schweitzer was 78) and found significant flaws in the practices and attitudes of Schweitzer and his staff. The hospital suffered from squalor, was without modern amenities and Schweitzer had little contact with the local people. Cameron did not make public what he had seen at the time: according to a recent BBC dramatisation, he made the unusual journalistic decision to withhold the story, and resisted the expressed wish of his employers to publish an exposé aimed at debunking Schweitzer.
American journalist John Gunther also visited Lambarene in the 1950s and reported Schweitzer's patronizing attitude towards Africans. He also noted the lack of Africans trained to be skilled workers (Inside Africa, published by Harper, New York 1955). After three decades in Africa Schweitzer still depended on Europe for nurses. By comparison, his contemporary Sir Albert Cook in Uganda had been training nurses and midwives since the 1910s and had published a manual of midwifery in the local language of Luganda (Amagezi Agokuzalisa, published by Sheldon Press, London).
After the birth of their daughter, Mme Helene Schweitzer was no longer able to live in Lambaréné owing to her health. A house was maintained at Königsfeld im Schwarzwald, Baden-Württemberg, and this house is now maintained as a Schweitzer Museum.
From 1939–48 he stayed in Lambaréné, 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, starring Pierre Fresnay as Albert Schweitzer and Jeanne Moreau as his nurse Marie. Schweitzer inspired actor Hugh O'Brian when O'Brian visited in Africa. O'Brian returned to the United States and founded the Hugh O'Brian Youth Leadership Foundation (HOBY).
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 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 April 23, 1957, Dr. 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:
He was chevalier of the Military and Hospitaller Order of Saint Lazarus of Jerusalem. Schweitzer died on September 4, 1965 at his beloved hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon. His grave, on the banks of the Ogowe River, is marked by a cross he made himself.
His cousin Anne-Marie Schweitzer Sartre was the mother of Jean-Paul Sartre.
Later recordings were made at Parish church, Günsbach: