Biography and History

Albert Schweitzer was born on January 14, 1875, in Kayersberg in Alsace. He was a frail, tiny baby and for weeks was not expected to live. Growing up, Schweitzer found great pleasure and satisfaction attending his father’s and other church services. In addition to the usual sermon, his father periodically would tell his congregation of missionaries in the far corners of the earth, especially the reminiscences of Casalis who had administered to the Blacks of South Africa. These memories profoundly affected Schweitzer in his later years.

On both sides of Schweitzer's ancestry there was a long background of musical ability and training. Schweitzer’s musical education began early, for even before he went to school his father gave him lessons on the piano, and when he was eight he began to play the organ. Surprisingly enough, Schweitzer was slow in learning to read and write. When he was 10, he went to the Gymnasium, a classical high school in Mulhouse, in Upper Alsace. After an initial period of maladjustment, Schweitzer improved in his studies and became one of the best scholars.

At eighteen, Schweitzer went to Paris. He studied theology, philosophy, and the organ intensively. In the midst of his studies he was conscripted into the German army for a year of compulsory service. Returning to his studies after the army, he plunged himself into every field of intellectual thought. At twenty-one, Schweitzer resolved to study until he was thirty and thereafter to give himself to some direct service of mankind.

One day he casually picked up a magazine which proved to be a report of the Paris Missionary Society. The president of the Society, a fellow Alsatian, was explaining how short of workers the French Congo was. Schweitzer's reaction was to write a letter to his family and his friends, telling them that he, now thirty, had decided to devote himself to the study of medicine so that he might go to Africa as a doctor to the natives. Criticism poured in upon him when his decision became known. However, Schweitzer calmly and rationally made up his mind and went ahead with his medical education. Eight years of rigorous study followed. Night and day he attempted to complete his medical courses, while at the same time continuing his writing and his music, and pursuing his former intellectual interests.

On June 18, 1912, Schweitzer married Helen Bresslau, the daughter of the Strasbourg historian. She assisted him in his preparations for Africa. In March 1913, he and his wife left for Lambaréné in Africa. They arrived there only to find that the buildings that were to have been constructed for their use had not been started because of a labor shortage. At first he had to use an old fowl house for his consulting room.

Then on August 4, 1914, came an ominous word from Cape Lopez: "In Europe they are mobilizing and probably already at war." Many thought the war would be a short one, but the Doctor had to be prepared. He laid in a store of new supplies in readiness for all emergencies. Food became scarce. They learned to eat strange meat at Lambaréné. The work of the Hospital had now largely ceased. The Doctor, being an Alsatian (at a time considered part of Germany), was forbidden to practice, and he was even interned. Later the rule against his hospital activities was relaxed, and he began to practice again. But, just as he was resuming his routine duties, the order came that he, among other prisoners of war, was to be transferred to Europe for internment there. During a series of internments in various locations, Dr. Schweitzer and his wife became very ill and were eventually allowed to return to Strasburg and then Gunsbach where they could recover. On February, 14, 1924, he finally left Strasburg to return to Lambaréné. From that time forward, Dr. Schweitzer operated his hospital in Lambaréné. Several times he had to return to Europe, to write books, lecture, or perform in concert in order to earn the necessary funds to maintain his hospital.

In addition to working with his hospital, Dr. Schweitzer devoted what free time he had to writing and correspondence. A philosophical thinker, he developed early in his career the concept of "reverence for life"—the idea that one must respect the life of all other living creatures (from beasts to insects to plants) just as much as one respects his own life—and adhered to it at his hospital and attempted to spread the idea throughout the world. Dr. Schweitzer was also a strong opponent of the atomic bomb, nuclear weapons, and nuclear testing and voiced his opinions in many of his writings. In 1953, Dr. Schweitzer received the Nobel Peace Prize (the delayed award from 1952) for his efforts at his hospital and in promoting peace around the world.

Mrs. Helen Schweitzer died on July 5, 1957, in Europe, and Dr. Schweitzer died on September 4, 1965, in Lambaréné at the age of ninety after a brief illness resulting from myocardial insufficiency and pneumonia. He left the administration of his hospital to their daughter, Rhena Eckert-Schweitzer, and Dr. Walter Munz, with the final request that his hospital be modernized but that "reverence for life" be maintained.

[The two sources referenced for this biographical sketch are: Fairbain, Robert H. “Albert Schweitzer—History in the Making.” Journal De Acemi—Camsi Journal, October 1956: 7-13. Joy, Charles R., and Melvin Arnold. The Africa of Albert Schweitzer. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1948.]

Source: From the finding aid for C0326

  • Albert Schweitzer Collection. 1896-1976 (inclusive), 1930-1965 (bulk).

    Call Number: C0326

    The collection contains both original and printed material relating to Albert Schweitzer, the French missionary physician who founded the Lambaréné Hospital in French Equatorial Africa in 1913 and who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 for his philosophy of "reverence for life."

  • Albert Schweitzer Collection. 1896-1976 (inclusive), 1930-1965 (bulk).

    Call Number: C0326

    The collection contains both original and printed material relating to Albert Schweitzer, the French missionary physician who founded the Lambaréné Hospital in French Equatorial Africa in 1913 and who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1953 for his philosophy of "reverence for life."

  • Miriam Rogers collection of Albert Schweitzer. 1945-1973 (inclusive), 1950-1963 (bulk).

    Call Number: C0769

    Consists primarily of papers collected by Miriam Rogers concerning Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) as medical missionary and physician at his hospital (founded in 1913) in Lambarene, French Equatorial Africa, after World War II. Rogers shared Albert Schweitzer’s interest in music (as a pianist) and medicine, leading her to become chairman (1950-1971) of the""Friends of Albert Schweitzer" in Boston. She made several trips to Africa, France, and Germany to visit Schweitzer.

  • Adlai E. Stevenson Papers. 1861-2001 (inclusive), 1952-1965 (bulk).

    Call Number: MC124

    The Adlai E. Stevenson Papers document the public life of Adlai Stevenson (1900-1965), governor of Illinois, Democratic presidential candidate, and United Nations ambassador. The collection contains correspondence, speeches, writings, campaign materials, subject files, United Nations materials, personal files, photographs, and audiovisual materials, illuminating Stevenson's career in law, politics, and diplomacy, primarily from his first presidential campaign until his death in 1965.