Albert Schweitzer Biography


(History of the World: The 20th Century)

Article abstract: Schweitzer, a renowned organist, student of the music of Bach, and an unorthodox biblical scholar, dedicated himself as a medical missionary to the natives of Africa, a decision that led to a fifty-year career that captured the admiration of many people and led to his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize. He also actively urged the public, politicians, and statesmen to come to grips with the threat of nuclear war and work for peace.

Early Life

Albert Schweitzer was born in Kaysersberg, Upper Alsace, on January 14, 1875. During that year his father, Louis Schweitzer, a liberal protestant, became pastor of the village church in Gunsbach, Alsace. There in what today is the Rhineland of France, Schweitzer grew up. Alsace has in its history been alternately governed by France and Germany. Because of this background Schweitzer spoke both French and German fluently. He studied and wrote in both languages.

Schweitzer’s father began teaching him to play the piano and organ when he was five and eight years old, respectively. At nine he occasionally substituted for the regular organist in his father’s church. When he was ten, he was sent to school in Mulhouse, where he lived with a great uncle and began taking music lessons from Eugene Munch. It was during the eight years he spent in Mulhouse that his creative, intellectual, and musical abilities blossomed.

In order to follow in the footsteps of his father, he was enrolled in the University of Strasbourg as a student of theology and philosophy at the Theological College of St. Thomas. He did not, however, give up his new love, music. It was music, particularly the editing of the organ works of Johann Sebastian Bach, and his organ playing, building, and restoring abilities that supported Schweitzer through much of his life and brought him international acclaim. His college career was interrupted when he was drafted into the infantry. He, however, did not leave his mind at home. He took what he had learned at St. Thomas and a copy of the Greek New Testament with him. He spent many hours thumbing through it, reading and meditating on the words of Jesus in the light of the modern historical criticism he had been taught.

Immediately after graduation, Schweitzer entered a postgraduate program in philosophy that took him to the Sorbonne in Paris, the University of Berlin, and finally back to the University of Strasbourg, which awarded him the doctor of philosophy degree for his treatise on the religious philosophy of Immanuel Kant. He believed that he was ready to begin working toward a doctor of theology degree, which he completed one year later. In September, 1900, he was ordained at St. Nicholas Church in Strasbourg and the following spring received an appointment to the faculty of the Theological College of St. Thomas at the University of Strasbourg, a post he held for six years. During this time he continued his study of the organ and gained quite a reputation as a performer.

Life’s Work

Schweitzer, on his thirtieth birthday, informed his friends that he had decided to devote the rest of his life to the natives of Africa as a doctor of medicine. This created quite a stir among family and friends, most of whom thought he had lost his mind. He was not to be dissuaded. While continuing his duties as a faculty member and completing a biography of Bach, Schweitzer began taking the science courses needed to enter medical school. He made contact with the Paris Missionary Society, whose newsletter containing an article on the need for medical missionaries in Africa had inspired him, volunteering his services as a medical missionary. To his surprise, he was not readily accepted, because of his unorthodox biblical views. He finally convinced the Paris Missionary Society to grant him permission to set up a medical facility for them when he promised not to preach but only to serve as a medical doctor.

From 1906 to 1912, Schweitzer studied medicine at the University of Strasbourg, all the time teaching religion at the university, preaching at St. Nicholas, giving organ concerts, working with Charles Widor on an edition of Bach’s organ works, writing several books and treatises, and making plans for his work in Africa. In 1912, he resigned his positions at the University of Strasbourg and St. Nicholas Church and on June 18, 1912, married Helene Bresslau, the daughter of a Jewish colleague and professor of history. In February, 1913, he completed his internship in tropical medicine, finished his thesis on the psychiatric study of Jesus, and received his M.D. degree. On March 26, 1913, he and his wife, who had become a nurse in order to work with him, set sail from Bordeaux, France, to set up a hospital on the land of the Paris Missionary Society in Lambaréné, French Equatorial Africa, today known as Gabon. This trip was the first of his many trips between Europe and Africa and marks the end of Schweitzer’s life of preparation for service and the beginning of his life of service to Africans.

Schweitzer’s life in Africa can be divided into four periods, each of which was marked by three events over which he had no control: World War I, World War II, and the death of his wife. Schweitzer had barely established his hospital when he was put under house arrest in Lambaréné by the French. He was considered an enemy alien because he was German and came from German Alsace. In 1917, he and his wife were transferred to France, where they were interned in two different prison camps for civilian aliens. It was to be ten years before he was able to return to Lambaréné. When he did so, this time without his wife, he found his hospital in ruins.

During the years from 1927 to 1947, Schweitzer built a new hospital at a new location not far from the first site. He traveled back and forth to Europe four times. One additional trip...

(The entire section is 2394 words.)