Last week marked the anniversary of Albert Schweitzer’s death, at age 90, in 1965. He went to Africa to begin his missionary work one hundred years ago, in 1913.
As the son of a Protestant minister, in a German speaking province that sometimes belonged to Germany and sometimes to France, Schweitzer had a solid religious upbringing. As a young child he began to include wild and domestic animals in his evening prayers. His lifetime motto, “Reverence for Life”, was germinating in his mind already then.
While still in school, he formulated a life plan to first study religion and music, and after the age of 30, find a concrete, hands-on way to practice his faith. He had no idea then what that would be.
His study of music, particularly Bach and his organ music, including theories of organ building and restoration, was earning him international standing by the time he was 24. In 1905, at age 30, he published the first of several works on Bach with insights from his own religious upbringing and study of theology.
Albert Schweitzer became a widely respected theologian. In 1901, at age 26, one year after earning his degree, he became Principal of his alma mater, the Theological College of St Thomas. In 1906 he published “The Quest of the Historical Jesus”, his perhaps most famous book on theology.
True to his earlier commitment, he realized at age 30, that he wanted to be a missionary doctor in Africa. By 1911, now 36 years old, he had earned his medical degree, and by the spring of 1913 he was headed for Africa. Because he was Protestant, the organization he wanted to work for would not accept him. Instead, he largely financed his mission himself with earnings from lectures and concerts. Other medical personnel joined him on his voyage into the jungle, 200 miles upstream from the nearest port.
He built and ran his hospital in Lambarene, and made it a haven for patients, their families and scores of animals. He saved the life of an orphaned kitten, who came to spend much of her time for the next twenty years sitting on Schweitzer’s desk as he wrote by a kerosene lamp every night.
Patients stayed at the hospital, which was laid out like a small village, until their treatment was completed. For patients with leprosy, the treatment could last over two years. Able-bodied patients and family members were required to work, and Schweitzer taught them basic carpentry, concrete making and other skills needed to expand the hospital. He planted gardens and made the hospital less dependent on food from outside Lambarene, but funds were still needed and he sometimes went back to Europe to lecture, give concerts and record music. Some of his travels away from Africa were involuntary, resulting from French-German animosity during and after World War I and from illness.
His work at Lambarene gained him world-wide recognition, as did his writings promoting peace and denouncing nuclear war. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, and used the money to improve his hospital.
Albert Schweitzer is said to have met Albert Einstein some time around 1930, and the two corresponded about their work for peace. Einstein compared Schweitzer to Ghandi in his leading by example.
Last night we watched Jerome Hill’s 1957 documentary on Schweitzer (available on Amazon and iTunes), filmed with the restriction that it was not to be released until after his death. We watched him move among patients, their families, dogs, cats, goats and pelicans in Africa and we watched him play the organ in his home church in Alsace. We watched him, at age 81, lead construction of the new leper wards in Lambarene. We watched footage from the hospital that only had electricity in the operating room. We heard Schweitzer quoted as saying that having thermometers would only have you pay more attention to the heat that you couldn’t do anything about anyway.
He went on, tirelessly, for nine more years. He died peacefully at the hospital he had built.
This remarkable man had three strong callings, three unique talents, three fulfilling careers, all interrelated. He was a true man of action.