“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.” Albert Schweitzer
September 5, 1965 – Lambarene, Gabon – French Equatorial Africa: On Sunday morning at 5:30 a.m. the bell at the hospital began to toll. Soon the bell at the leper colony down the road joined in. Then native tom-toms in the surrounding villages relayed the sad news across the jungle. Le Grand Docteur (The Great Doctor) had passed peacefully in his sleep a few hours earlier. Hundreds came from villages as far as 50 miles away to mourn the 90-year-old doctor’s death.
The son and grandson of Lutheran ministers, Albert Schweitzer grew up in Strasbourg, France. A musical prodigy, at 9 he began playing the organ in his father’s church. At 18, he entered the University of Strasbourg and earned doctorate degrees in philosophy and theology. Upon graduation, Schweitzer joined the Strasbourg theology faculty and became pastor at St. Nicholas Church.
In the fall of 1904, he was reading a Paris Missionary Society bulletin when an article caught his eye. ‘The Needs in the Congo Mission’ shared the dire medical needs of the African people. The story ended, “Is there anyone who will hear the call and come to help these people?” Schweitzer dropped to his knees. “I knew I had found my calling,” the 30-year-old Lutheran minister later recalled.
Schweitzer resigned as chair of the theology department and enrolled as a student in the university’s medical school despite strong objections from family and faculty. His church congregation was shocked. Why? Why was he was resigning his pastorate to go to the tropical African jungle? His elders called it madness.
Schweitzer was 38 when he earned a medical degree specializing in surgery and tropical medicine. On Good Friday 1913, he and his new wife, Helene, who had trained to work with him as a nurse, sailed for Lambarene, a small protestant mission station run by the Paris Missionary Society. The remote site was located on the Ogooue River a few miles from the equator and only reachable by canoe.
Upon arrival, Dr. Schweitzer expected to find a small hospital. There was none. A month later, he started his medical clinic in the only available building, a 10’ by 10’ chicken coop. During the first year, the Schweitzers treated more than 2,000 people for malaria, yellow fever, malnutrition, ulcers, worms and the dreaded sleeping sickness.
During World War I, the Schweitzers, of German descent, were arrested and sent to France as prisoners of war. After their release from prison, Dr. Schweitzer devoted several years to raising money for the medical project by performing organ concerts, giving lectures and writing books. He had become a world-recognized scholar on the classical music of German composer Johann Sebastian Bach. Concert halls across Europe sold out wherever he performed.
The Schweitzers returned to Lambarene in 1924 to continue their work. Helene became a nurse anesthetist and worked alongside her husband during surgeries. Schweitzer wore many hats – physician, surgeon, building superintendent, pastor and chief fundraiser.
In 1952, Dr. Schweitzer traveled to Stockholm, Sweden, to receive the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work. He used the $33,000 prize money to build a wing in the hospital for leprosy patients.
By the late 1950s, the Albert Schweitzer Hospital complex included 70 buildings, 350 beds and a leper colony that could accommodate 200 patients. The volunteer staff included three doctors, seven nurses and 13 support team members. Later in life, Helene had health issues which kept her from working alongside her husband. When she died at 79, she was buried in a small cemetery at the hospital.
Despite his extraordinary commitment to the people of Africa, Dr. Albert Schweitzer courted controversy for much of his life. Critics accused him of being a racist, the medical community deemed his hospital and medical practice unsanitary and music critics labeled him a stodgy musician. He was also frequently criticized for his vegetarian diet and strong animal rights position.
Those who came to the hospital on a steamy September morning in 1965, and the thousands of patients treated by Dr. Schweitzer during his 50-year medical practice in Gabon, clearly shared a different opinion of Le Grand Docteur. A simple white cross marks his grave, next to Helene on the grounds of the hospital at Lambarene.