Childhood & Early Life
Albert Schweitzer was born on 14 January 1875 in Kaysersberg, a little village in Upper Alsace, where his father, Louise Schweitzer, was a pastor of a small Protestant congregation. His mother, Adèle nee Schillinger, was the daughter of a pastor from Muhlbach.
Albert was born second of his parents’ five surviving children, having an elder sister, senior to him by one year. Subsequently three more daughters and a son was born to his parents; but the sixth child, Emma, died in infancy. Albert himself was born very weak.
Six months after his birth, Louise Schweitzer moved to Gunsbach, another village in Alsace. It was here that Albert began to recoup his health, growing up strong and healthy, enjoying a happy childhood with his four siblings; Louisa, Lulie Adele, Marguerit, and Paul Schweitzer.
Little Albert began his education at the village school, where he studied under Father Iltis until the age of ten, learning a great deal without exertion from him. But even before that he started taking his lessons in music from his father.
As the pastor’s son, he had to walk an extra mile to be accepted by the village boys. It meant refusing to wear a newly made overcoat or a fashionable hat that his mother wanted to buy him because none of the village boys wore them.
In spite of his efforts to be an equal he really never achieved his goal. Whenever there was a quarrel, he was taunted as a ‘gentleman’s son’. Nonetheless, these years taught him a few important lessons, the most important of which was to accept any unknown situation without illusion.
The religious tradition in which he was raised also cast an important influence on his life. The parish church of Gunsbach was shared by the Protestant and Catholic congregations, who held prayers at different times on Sundays. From this he learned the ideal of unity of Faith and Purpose.
In 1885, 10 year old Albert was sent to live with his granduncle at Mulhouse to be educated at its excellent gymnasium. Simultaneously, he studied organ at the Protestant with organist, Eugène Munch, whose enthusiasm for the music of Richard Wagner greatly influenced young Albert.
In 1893, Albert Schweitzer received his school leaving certificate and entered the Theological College of St. Thomas under Kaiser Wilhelm University, now known as University of Strasbourg, with Protestant theology and philosophy. Simultaneously he also received instruction in piano and counterpoint from Professor Gustav Jacobsthal.
In 1894, he had to go for his one year compulsory military service. On his return, he resumed his studies in theology and music, concurrently, attending the operas of Richard Wagner, visiting Bayreuth Festival in 1896.
In 1898, he went to Paris to complete his PhD dissertation at the Sorbonne. Here too he remained preoccupied with music, often meeting Aristide Cavaillé-Coll, a distinguished organ builder and studying music with Charles-Marie Widor and piano with Marie Jaëll.
In 1899, Schweitzer returned to Strasbourg, where he defended his doctoral dissertation, ‘The Religious Philosophy of Kant’, earning his PhD in Philosophy. Next in 1900, he received his licentiate in theology. By then, he had already started serving as a deacon at the Church of St. Nicholas in Strasbourg.
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In 1901, Albert Schweitzer began his career as a provisional principle at his alma mater, the Theological College of St. Thomas; the position was made permanent in 1903. All along, he continued to preach at the Church of St. Nicholas, rising to the post of curate.
In spite of such preoccupations, music remained an integral part of his life. In 1899, Charles-Marie Widor had asked Schweitzer to write on the great musician, Johann Sebastian Bach.
Working on the theme, he published ‘J. S. Bach: Le Musicien-Poète’, in 1905. Written in French, the book generated great interest among the German-speaking readers. Instead of translating it, Schweitzer decided to write a new book. Entitled ‘J. S. Bach’, it was published in two volumes in 1908. Meanwhile in 1906, he published another book, this time on organ building and playing.
Also in 1906, his first theological work, ‘Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung’ (History of Life-of-Jesus) was published, generating immense interest. In 1910, it was translated into English by William Montgomery. Entitled ‘The Quest of Historical Jesus’, it made Schweitzer famous in English-speaking world.
It is not known exactly when, but sometime around 1909, Schweitzer gave up his successful career to study medicine at the University of Strasbourg with the aim of serving in Africa. He had declared his intention for such work back in 1905 and had been studying in private since then.
Working hard, he completed his courses by December 1911, receiving his degree in Doctorate of Medicine in 1912. Meanwhile, he had raised enough money by holding concerts and also from sales of his books to establish a hospital in Africa.
In the spring of 1913, Albert Schweitzer left for Lambaréné in the Gabon province of French Equatorial Africa, along with his wife, Hélène Bresslau, a trained nurse. There they set up their hospital in a chicken hut on the banks of the Ogooué (Ogowe) River at the edge of the forest.
Although the funds were scarce and the equipments primitive, they began to treat thousands of Africans, thronging their hospital from far and near. By the autumn of 1913, they had their hospital rooms, which included an operation theatre, made out of corrugated iron.
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In 1914, with the start of the First World War, Schweitzer and his wife, being German citizen on French soil, were put under the supervision of the French military. However, they continued their work until 1917, when he became ill from exhaustion and anemia. Thereafter, they were moved to France.
The Schweitzers were first interned at Garaison and then from March 1918 in Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, before being sent home in Alsace in July 1918. Here he was declared free. Subsequently, he became a French citizen.
Schweitzer remained in Europe for next six years, raising fund for his hospital in Africa by giving lectures and organ concerts. He also took further medical courses and wrote number of books.
In 1922, he gave number of lectures in England. From the Dale Memorial Lectures given in Oxford University, appeared two of his important works, ‘The Decay and Restoration of Civilization’ and ‘Civilization and Ethics’. Published separately in 1923, they were later included in ‘Philosophy of Life’ as volume I and II.
From the series of lectures presented during February 1922 to the theology and missionary students at Selly Oak Colleges in Birmingham, appeared another of his important works, ‘Christianity and the Religions of the World’. This too was published in 1923 along with his fourth book, ‘On the Edge of the Primeval Forest’.
In 1924, he returned alone to Lambaréné. With funds earned from royalties and appearing fees, he immediately set out to rebuild the structure and reestablished his hospital. Subsequently, he also began to receive donations from all over the world.
By 1925-1926, with other medical staff joining the hospital, it took up the shape of a village, where Schweitzer was not only a doctor and surgeon, but also an administrator, buildings superintendent and pastor of a congregation. Also in 1925, he had his ‘Memoirs of Childhood and Youth’ published.
In 1927, he went to Europe for two years. This time, he was able to leave behind a more organized hospital and therefore, his staff was able to carry on his work until he returned in 1929.
In spite of the busy schedule, Schweitzer continued to write, publishing another of his important theological work, ‘The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle’ in 1930.
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In 1931, he published his autobiography, ‘Aus meinem Leben und Denken’ (Out of My Life and Thought).
In 1932, he returned again to Europe, giving lectures and organ recitals throughout the continent. This was also the time when he possibly restarted editing of Bach’s which he began in 1912.
Continuing to travel and write, Schweitzer published another of his important work, ‘Indian Thought and its Development’. However from 1937 to 1948, he was forced to remain at Lambaréné, mainly because the ongoing Second World War.
In 1940, while living at Lambaréné, he had to cross another major hurdle. Because of the war, his European supply lines were cut off. Undeterred, he established Albert Schweitzer Fellowship to unite his US supporters and thus filling up the gap
In 1949, Schweitzer traveled to the USA, inspiring his followers to serve the underprivileged. Thereafter, he continued to visit different parts of Europe as long as his health permitted, concurrently expanding the hospital facilities at Lambaréné.
From 1952 onwards, he started working against nuclear tests and nuclear weapons. In 1957, he gave four speeches over Radio Oslo. These were published in his last book, ‘Peace or Atomic War’. Also in the same year, he co-founded The Committee for a Sane Nuclear Policy.
In his last years, he lived mainly in Lambaréné. By the time he died in 1965, the hospital he had founded in a chicken shed had seventy-two buildings with 600 beds. However, he failed to train local population; physicians and nurses, who worked for him, were all whites.
Remembered both as a best-selling author and a medical missionary, Schweitzer is best revered for his philosophy of life, whose basic tenet was ‘Ehrfurcht vor dem Leben’. Meaning ‘Reverence for Life’, the phrase struck him like a lightning while watching a family of hippopotamus on the bank of Ogooué River.
He realized that the Western civilization was in ethical crisis, which in turn is rooted in a crisis of world view. Out of this realization was born his seminal work, ‘Philosophy of Civilization’.
’Philosophy of Life’ consists of two volumes, ‘The Decay and Restoration of Civilization’ and ‘Civilization and Ethics’. He later started writing two more volumes, ‘The World-View of Reverence for Life’ and ‘Civilized State’; but they were never completed.
Personal Life & Legacy
On 18 June 1912, Albert Schweitzer married Helene Bresslau, daughter of one of his professors. Soon after their marriage, the couple moved to Africa where they set up their hospital.
Their only daughter, Rhena, was born in January 1919 in Europe. In 1924, when her father returned to Africa she remained behind with her mother in Königsfeld, her father’s birth place, where he had built their family home.
During her childhood, she saw little of her father. But much later, she left for Africa and joined her father, taking over the administration from him, a task that she continued to perform even after his death.
Albert Schweitzer suffered a stroke on 28 August 1965 and died from it on 4 September 1965 in Lambaréné., at the age of 90.
He was buried at his hospital, later named Albert Schweitzer Hospital. Their home in Königsfeld has now been turned into a museum.