Well-known and unknown Albert Schweitzer. Theologian, doctor, philosopher, musician and Nobel Laureate

Why did people all over the globe listen so carefully to his voice? Why, even now that he is no longer in the world, do people remember him and return to his books? Why was he awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953? To find the answers to these questions, read on.

Einstein once said that for a scientist, high moral qualities are more important than talent. Albert Schweitzer – a German physician, philosopher, theologian, musician who founded a hospital for lepers in Africa at his own expense in 1913, where he worked until the end of his days, was a scientist who had both equally. “There is no greater satisfaction than curing people,” said the man, one of the most humane people of the 20th century. He dedicated more than 50 years of his life to healing blacks in the dense jungle of Gabon in Lambarene, West Africa. Dozens of books and hundreds of articles have been written about him.

Albert Schweitzer was a professor of theology at the University of Strasbourg when he read an article about the plight of suffering black people without medical care. In this article, a small French mission in Gabon invited young doctors to work for the local population. Schweitzer decided to respond to this invitation.

The professor of theology became a medical student at his university and paid tuition with his organ concerts.
Schweitzer’s doctorate in musicology was dedicated to Bach, whose biography he published in 1905. After learning about the intention of a professor of philosophy, theology and musicology, his friends considered him almost insane. His teacher, the famous French organist Charles-Marie Widor, told him, “Generals don’t go into battle with a rifle.” Schweitzer, however, went and fought for the rest of his life for the health of the disadvantaged in the colonial land. His work is an example of the heroism of the average practitioner.

Albert Schweitzer and childhood in a pastoral family

Albert Louis Philipp Schweitzer was born on January 14, 1875. In the small town of Kaysersberg in Upper Alsace. The family then moved to the village of Gunsbach, where he spent his childhood. In addition to him, there were five children in the family – four girls and one boy. His parents were French: father Louis Schweitzer – pastor, mother Adele Schweitzer, daughter of pastor and organist Johann Schillinger, from whom Albert claimed to have real organ skills. Albert’s father taught him to play the piano at the age of five.

Schweitzer – philosopher

After graduating from Gunsbach County School and Mühlhausen Gymnasium, Albert entered the University of Strasbourg in the autumn of 1893. There he diligently studied philosophy, theology and music. His mentors during university were Theobald Ziegler and Wilhelm Windelband, followers of I. Kant. They had a certain effect on the formation of the student’s views. According to Schweitzer, Kant was the greatest thinker. He compared Kant’s role in German philosophy to Bach’s role in German music.

It is therefore no coincidence that Schweitzer, on Ziegler’s proposal, chose Kant’s philosophy of religion as the topic of his doctoral dissertation. In his dissertation, however, the young scientist not only addressed the philosophical and religious views of the great philosopher, but also argued with him, proving the inconsistency of the thinker in solving ethical problems. In 1899, Schweitzer’s doctoral dissertation “The Philosophy of Religion of Kant” was published. It was his first printed work, with the exception of a small brochure dedicated to musical mentor E. Munch.

Schweitzer – pastor

After defending his dissertation, T. Ziegler invited the young philosopher to work as a private individual in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Strasbourg, but Schweitzer chose a modest pastoral position in St. Nicholas Church in Strasbourg. However, he did not have to work as a pastor for long, and in 1902 he became a private associate professor of theology at the University of Birth. Schweitzer gave his first lecture at the Faculty of Theology in March 1902. and dedicated it to the teaching of the Logos in John. Then there were lectures on pastoral letters, the life of Jesus Christ and the Last Supper. In parallel with his teaching work, Schweitzer worked for almost a year as the director of the College of Theology, which made it possible to improve his financial situation.

Frequent trips to France brought Schweitzer closer to the scientific and artistic intelligence of Paris. In the first years of the 20th century he gave lectures on German literature and philosophy at the Paris Society of Science and Art (Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Hauptmann). He made friends among famous composers and became close acquainted with the organist, his teacher S.-M. Vidor (1844-1937). Schweitzer’s acquaintance with R. Rolland dates back to 1905, from which a deep and faithful friendship grew, as did A. Einstein.

Schweitzer – writer and musician

R. Rolland wrote about him. He noticed a talented writer and commented on his book about Bach: “Albert Schweitzer – the director of the seminary in St. Thomas, a pastor, a preacher, an organist, a professor at the University of Strasbourg and the author of an interesting books on philosophy, theology and books, is writing a famous book, “Johann-Sebastian Bach”, who is widely known to music historians.

Schweitzer’s organ concerts attracted and delighted audiences in various European countries. Schweitzer was a brilliant virtuoso organist and the greatest master of his time. Stefan Zweig, who once came to Gunsbach specifically to talk to Schweitzer and listen to Bach’s music, later wrote that while listening to Schweitzer, he forgot about the passage of time, where he is and when he came to his senses, he found himself crying.

Schweitzer – doctor

And just as the young scientist and musician so quickly gained recognition, security, fame, he suddenly refused to pursue his brilliant career and in 1905 entered the medical school of the University of Strasbourg. Schweitzer’s words describe how much effort it took to study at the age of 30: “In theology and music, I was, so to speak, at home, because there were many pastors and organists in my family and I grew up in an environment where such people surrounded me. But medicine! It was a whole new world for me.

So Professor Schweitzer sat in the student bench again. For 6 years, course after course, he acquired the secrets of healing with his characteristic perseverance. He studied therapy and gynecology, dentistry and pharmacy with the same enthusiasm, knowing that in tropical Africa he had no consultants or counselors – everything was up to him. The professor-student paid special attention to surgery. It was a colossal job. He often slept three to four at night. After giving lectures to the students, he hurried to listen to the lectures of the medical faculty and then sat in the anatomical department late at night.

Albert Schweitzer passed his final exams on December 17, 1911 and traveled to Paris in the spring of 1912 to specialize in tropical medicine. But here was a problem. When the time came to obtain a medical degree, unexpected and insurmountable difficulties arose: by law, a professor was not allowed to be a student. There was a curious correspondence between the management of the University of Strasbourg and the German Minister for Education himself. Exceptionally, the university authorities were allowed to issue Schweitzer with a Certificate of graduation from the Faculty of Medicine, not a diploma. Schweitzer’s doctoral dissertation “The Psychiatric Assessment of Jesus’ Personality” was published in Tübingen in 1913. And on March 21 of the same year, Albert Schweitzer and his wife, Helena-Marianne, set sail on the steamer “Europe” in what was then French Equatorial Africa (now the Gabonese Republic).

Helena-Marianne Schweitzer

Helena, before her marriage  Breslau (1879-1957), was the daughter of a medieval historian, Harry Breslau, a professor at the University of Strasbourg. Helena Breslau initially prepared for pedagogical activities and started teaching a girls’ school at an early age. After a long stay in Italy, where she traveled with her parents (her father worked there in the archives), she decided to give up teaching and dedicate herself to studying painting and sculpture and to study art history in Strasbourg. But it didn’t last long. In the autumn of 1902, she traveled to England, where she worked as a teacher in the suburbs. After that, she went to Russia at the invitation of her friends, lived in Poltava and studied Russian there. When she returned to Strasbourg, she enrolled in medical courses and after completing them, devoted herself to caring for orphans and single mothers. In 1907, a single mother’s house with children was opened on the outskirts of Strasbourg, employing a young girl who did not fear the condemnation of society in whose eyes such women were considered fallen.

In 1902, Helena heard Schweitzer play the organ for the first time – she performed Bach’s choir at a church where the woman came with the children at the time. Helena and Albert soon met. The music brought them together. “Music has always been our best friend,” she recalled later. A common understanding of life as an obligation to the people brought Albert and Helena closer and closer. Their meetings became more frequent. Helena was the first to know about Schweitzer’s decision to study medicine and to travel to Africa later. Communicating with Helena undoubtedly strengthened Albert’s determination to prioritize medicine over anything else. At the same time, the woman was actively helping her future husband with her literary works and proofreading.

They married on July 18, 1912, less than a year before traveling to Lambarene. Helena received a medical education: she completed courses for nurses.

Albert Schweitzer’s mother did not want to agree with his decision. Schillinger’s compelling spirit did not soften. The will that took her son to Africa left him without his mother’s blessing. He never saw his mother again. Adele Schweitzer died in an accident near Gunsbach on 3 July 1916: she was trampled under the hooves of a German cavalry horse during the war.

Albert Schweitzer –  physician for the indigenous people

On April 16, the Schweitzers arrived at their new job in Labarene. At first, Dr. Schweitzer began receiving patients and performing bandages and surgeries outdoors. When the thunderstorm broke out, he had to take everything to the porch. “Patients reception in the heat of the sun was very exhausting,” says Dr. Schweitzer. He soon set up a hospital in the premises where the missionary who lived in that house had a chicken coop before his arrival. Shelves were made on the wall, an old camp bed was placed and the darkest places on the walls were covered with lime. This small windowless room was very crowded and the roof holes made it necessary to spend the whole day in a tropical helmet.

Thirty to forty patients had to be treated during the day. At six o’clock in the evening, it became dark and the patients were admitted because it was not safe to examine the patients under artificial lighting due to mosquitoes, they could easily get malaria. Malaria was not the only threat, with yellow fever, leprosy, scabies, tropical dysentery and sleeping sickness spreading by mosquitoes and tsetse flies. Sleeping sickness wreaked havoc. This led to a third of the total population. In Uganda, for example, the population has fallen from three hundred thousand to one hundred thousand in six years. Sleeping sickness is a special chronic meningitis and inflammation of the brain that always ends in death. This is due to the fact that trypanosomes, which are initially found only in the blood, later enter the cerebrospinal fluid.

The natives were completely powerless against sleeping sickness, scabies and many other diseases and did not try to do anything, but simply left the sick to their fate. The patient usually lied in the farthest and dirtiest corner of the hut. When agony arose, the natives carried the dying man to the forest and threw him there so as not to hear his moans and cries. They tied the mentally ill to a tree somewhere far from the village and the lepers were simply driven into the forest, where they were eaten by wild animals. It is not possible to talk about even a small part of the infectious diseases that Dr. Schweitzer  treated at the risk of his life. Without going into details, we noted that with the advent of Schweitzer, things changed for the better.

“My job is complicated by the fact that I can only store a few medicines in the chicken coop,” says Schweitzer. “For almost every patient, I have to go outside to my office to consider or prepare the necessary medicines and it is very tiring and time consuming. When will the barracks where my hospital will be housed finally ready? Will they be able to do it before the end of the long rainy season? And what should I do if it’s not ready by then? There is no way to work in a chicken coop during the hot season. ”

The Schweitzer family lived like in a prison. Lambarene had also no air to breathe. The air was unbearable. The canoe house was surrounded by a thirty-meter-high tropical forest, from which the wind could not break, no matter how hard it tried. The sun was the most frightening enemy here and sunstroke with serious consequences was the most common. A missionary woman walked several meters in the heat with her head uncovered and immediately became ill: she had a severe fever with terrible symptoms. One of the white men who worked with commercial post lay down after dinner to rest and a small thaler-sized hole in the roof from which the sun’s rays shone was enough to cause him severe fever with delirium. Undressing was also unthinkable for another reason – tse tse flies infected with sleeping sickness flew around like clouds. In addition, the grass swarmed with various snakes.

“I hoped I wouldn’t have to do major operations before building the barracks, but my hopes didn’t materialize,” says Schweitzer. – 1915. in august I had to operate on a patient with a hernia. My wife did the anesthesia. Everything went better than expected. What shocked me the most was the confidence with which this black man lay down on the operating table. Of course, the asepsis was far from perfect, but there was no other choice. ”

With the construction of the barracks, Schweitzer’s wife had a greater opportunity to take part in the healing process, with only one person in the chicken coop. In addition to the household, which is full of challenges in Africa, she had to monitor the washing and subsequent cooking of dirty and infected bandages, then participate in operations as an anesthesiologist. Once upon a time, there was a boy among the patients who did not want to enter the operating room for any reason and his horror in front of the doctor was so great. For a year and a half, he suffered from a foot-sized purulent osteoma. The smell was so disgusting that it was unbearable. The boy was thin and looked like a skeleton. As it turned out, he was sure the doctor would kill him and eat him. The unfortunate boy had not heard of children’s fairy tales about cannibalism, but it was present among the natives at that time.

The whole Equatorial Africa lies in the fact that neither fruit plants nor fruit trees grow or have ever grown there. Banana bushes, cassava, yams (Dioscorea), sweet potatoes and oil palm did not grow here from the beginning, but were brought here by the Portuguese from the West Indies. In doing so, they have brought invaluable benefits to Africa. In areas where these useful plants had not yet penetrated or where they had not been properly rooted, there was a constant famine during Schweitzer’s stay. This forced parents to sell their children downstream. Dr. Schweitzer had patients who were “soil eaters.” Hunger forced the natives to eat the soil, and this habit persisted even when hunger was gone.

It is not possible to write about all the difficulties that the Schweitzers had to face. The climate in Equatorial Africa was bad for Helena’s health. As a result, she spent about half of their marriage in Europe and came to Lambarene several times, only for a short time. She spent the last year and a half there. Helena’s health deteriorated due to an inhumane burden. This forced the couple together with their daughter who was born on January 14, 1919. to travel to Europe on May 22, 1957. The seriously ill Helena returned to her family home in Königsfeld (Black Forest, Switzerland). She died ten days later in a hospital in Zurich. Her ashes were buried in Lambarene.

Documentary about Albert Schweitzer:


Finally, Dr. Albert Schweitzer was recognized: in 1929 he was elected an honorary member of the then Prussian Academy of Sciences, and on October 20, 1952, of the French Academy of Moral and Political Science; In 1953, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to him for 1952; In October 1955, Schweitzer was elected an honorary member of the Royal Society of England and the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine.

In 1920, Schweitzer was elected as honorary doctor of  universities in Zurich, Prague (1926), Edinburgh (1931), Oxford and St. Petersburg. Andrus (1932), Chicago (1949), Marburg (1952), Cambridge (1955), Tübingen (1957), Munster (1959), Berlin (1960).

On August 17, 1960, Schweitzer was awarded the Order of the Equatorial Star of the Gabonese Republic. On January 14, 1965, Albert Schweitzer’s ninetieth birthday was celebrated in all countries of the world. According to him, the main street of Lambarene is named. In the summer of the same year, a new, 70th hospital building was opened. The hospital has 500 patients. In August, Schweitzer, along with Linus Pauling and a large number of Nobel Prize-winning scientists, signed an appeal to the leaders of the great powers, demanding an end to the Vietnam War.

Albert Schweitzer died on September 4, 1965 in the Lambarene, where he had devoted his life to it and is buried next to his wife and assistant.

Source and photos: Известный и неизвестный Альберт Швейцер. Теолог, врач, фолософ, музыкант, Нобелевский лауреат | Статьи на inVictory

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