One of the outstanding persons of the twentieth century died 48 years ago yesterday. That was Albert Schweitzer, who passed away at the age of 90.
Schweitzer was born in 1875 in a town that had been part of France until the region was annexed by Germany four years earlier. By 1900 he had become a noted organist, had completed his doctor of philosophy degree, and was a Lutheran minister and seminary professor.
In 1904, though, Schweitzer felt God’s call to become a missionary to Africa. But he decided that in order to serve best in the jungles of Africa he should become a doctor, so he entered medical school. Upon completion of his medical training, but before leaving Europe, he then had to raise money to equip a clinic.
Finally, on Good Friday in 1913, Dr. Albert and his wife Helene, a nurse, set sail for Africa. They immediately began their medical work in Lambaréné, a small outpost in what was then known as French Equatorial Africa and now as the country Gabon. They soon were overwhelmed with patients.
It was not long, though, before World War I began. Since the Schweitzers were German citizens, they were seen as enemies of the French, who ruled the country to which they had gone. So they were placed under house arrest, and then in 1917 were moved to an internment camp in France.
By the time the war ended in 1918, their mission in Lambaréné had been destroyed and they were heavily in debt for medicines and supplies ordered for an African hospital that no longer existed.
During his first years in Africa, Schweitzer began to emphasize “reverence for life,” which became one of his “trademarks.” That emphasis is similar to a central idea in Buddhism, and there is even a Buddhist temple in Kumamoto Prefecture, Japan, that bears Schweitzer’s name. June and I enjoyed visiting there several years ago.
In 1924 Schweitzer journeyed back to Africa and started from scratch once again. This time his work flourished—and gradually became known around the world. Dr. Albert became so well known and his emphasis on reverence for life so admired that in 1952 he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Worldwide attention and acclaim led some to look for flaws in Schweitzer, and, indeed, there did seem to be some. In the 1950s he was accused, perhaps rightfully, of being paternalistic, colonialistic and even racist in his attitude towards Africans.
Still, those who leveled such criticisms had not labored or suffered anything close to the extent that Schweitzer had. And they certainly had not done nearly as much to help so many people in physical need.
Once when asked how he had accomplished so much, the old doctor responded by repeating what he had earlier told some of his students: “I don’t know what your destiny will be, but one thing I know: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.”
Those are certainly words well worth considering as we remember with appreciation the long and productive life of Dr. Albert Schweitzer, who died on September 4, 1965.
Note – Recently read/viewed and recommended: “Albert Schweitzer: Serving a Higher Calling,” chapter 15 in Ace Collins, Stories behind Men of Faith (2009) and “Albert Schweitzer: Called to Africa” (2006 film).