Dr. Schweitzer of Lambaréné Essay - Critical Context

Norman Cousins

Critical Context

Dr. Schweitzer of Lambaréné was published in 1960, but in its presentation of Schweitzer and its handling of social issues, the book anticipates a type of biography for young adults that generally began to be published after about 1970. It is an important book in the history of biographies for young adults.

The book differs from traditional biographies for young adults in three ways. First, until about 1970, many writers of these biographies simply expected readers to emulate the heroes, male or female, of the books. As a result, these writers did not probe motives. Cousins breaks with this tradition by wondering what motivated Schweitzer to live so selflessly. Second, these writers often focused on the childhoods and early adulthoods of their subjects, thinking that young readers could better empathize with young characters. Schweitzer is eighty-three years old when Cousins writes about him. Third, traditional biographers often idolized their subjects. Cousins admires Schweitzer, and makes this attitude clear, but he also points out some of Schweitzer’s faults, such as his occasional brusqueness.

The historic mistreatment of blacks by whites in Africa, the Holocaust in Europe, and the possibility of nuclear war are some of the social issues Cousins raises in the book. He describes some of the problems caused by South African apartheid, mentions Schweitzer’s frustration with the French Equatorial African government, which required numerous forms for each patient, and points out how different Schweitzer’s treatment of Africans was from many other white people’s treatments of Africans. Cousins develops the theme of people in power treating others prejudicially by referring to the Holocaust, in which six million Jews were killed, and by mentioning that Mrs. Schweitzer was Jewish and that Richard Friedmann, a doctor at the hospital, had survived German concentration camps during the war. Without luck, these two noble people could have died in the camps. Many significant books for young readers that advocated nuclear disarmament were published in the 1980’s; Hiroshima No Pika, by Toshi Maruki, was published in 1982, and The Butter Battle Book, by Dr. Seuss (Theodor Geisel), was published in 1984. Dr. Schweitzer of Lambaréné anticipated these books’ theme by more than twenty years.