The Visionary, Controversial, Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer

Albert Schweitzer

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When Albert Schweitzer died in 1965, the doctor from Alsace-Lorraine was held up to the world over as a paradigm of goodness. He was a European who sacrificed a life of comfort to tend to the sick, deep in Africa. But toward the end of his life, as African nationalism was on the rise, Schweitzer became as controversial as he was inspiring. Ideas contributor Megan Williams looks back on his legacy... that of a visionary,  well-intentioned doctor doing good deeds in a far-off land...  but also at the uncomfortable questions and challenges that still arise today when Westerners go to Africa to help.



schweitzer-grave.jpgAlbert Schweitzer was one of the great visionaries and humanitarians of the 20th century.

As a young man at the turn of the century, he had a brilliant career as a philosopher, theologian and musician. He was a star organist - the Yo Yo Ma or Lang Lang of his day. His works on Bach are still influential. As a theologian, he radically challenged assumptions about Jesus.

At the age of 30, Schweitzer gave up his musical and academic careers to devote his life to helping others. He studied medicine and in 1913, with his wife Hélène Bresslau, travelled to Lambaréné, a small missionary station in what today is Gabon, to try to atone for colonialist crimes by Europeans. He set up a hospital, and for 50 years, ran it.

He corresponded with Einstein, crusaded against nuclear testing, and inspired famed environmentalist Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring. In 1952, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Yet, later in life, he also elicited scorn. He had little faith in African nationalist movements, considering them pre-mature. While thousands of Africans called him "le grand docteur," others came to equate him with colonialism itself.

This month marks exactly one hundred years since Schweitzer first arrived in Gabon.   In The Visionary, Controversial, Albert Schweitzer, writer and broadcaster Megan Williams looks back on his life and legacy.


Participants in the program:

Christiane Engel, medical doctor and concert pianist and Albert Schweitzer's granddaughter.

Jenny Litzelmann, manager of Albert Schweitzer House in Gunsbach, France, hometown of Albert Schweitzer.

David Jaeger, composer, producer, performer.

Lachlan Forrow
, president of Albert Schweitzer Hospital, director of Ethics Programs and Director of Palliative Care Programs at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Hines Mabika, medical historian at the University of Bern, Switzerland.


Reading List:

Schweitzer, Albert, J.S. Bach, translated [into English] by Ernest Newman. 2 vols. London, A. & C. Black, 1911. (First published in French, J.S. Bach: Le Musicien-poète. Avec la collaboration de M. Hubert Gillot. Paris, Costallat, 1905.)

Schweitzer, Albert, Memoirs of Childhood and Youth. (Aus meiner Kindheit und Jugendzeit. Munich, C. H. Beck, 1924.) Translated by C. T. Campion. London, Allen & Unwin, 1924. New York, Macmillan 1949.

Schweitzer, Albert, On the Edge of the Primeval Forest. (Zwischen Wasser und Urwald. Upsala, Lindblad, 1920.) Translated by C. T. Campion. London, A.& C. Black, 1922.

Schweitzer, Albert, Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography. (Aus meinem Leben und Denken. Leipzig, Felix Meiner, 1931.) Translated by C.T. Campion. New York, Henry Holt, 1933; 1949.

Schweitzer, Albert, The Psychiatric Study of Jesus. (Die psychiatrische Beurteilung Jesu: Darstellung und Kritik. Tübingen, J.C.B. Mohr, 1913.) Translated by Charles R. Joy. Boston, Beacon Press, 1948.

Schweitzer, Albert, The Quest of the Historical Jesus: A Critical Study of Its Progress from Reimarus to Wrede. (von Reimarus zu Wrede: Eine Geschichte der Leben-Jesu-Forschung. Tübingen, J. C. B. Mohr, 1906.) Translated by W. Mongomery. London. A & C. Black, 1910.


Related Websites:

International Albert Schweitzer Association

Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Lambarene


Albert Schweitzer Hospital Haiti

Albert Schweitzer Fellowship

This documentary included organ performances by Albert Schweitzer from the recording, Albert Schweitzer Plays Organ Works.

It also featured selections from the Academy Award-winning documentary from 1957, Albert Schweitzer.

You can watch journalist Gerald McKnight's critical profile of Albert Schweitzer on the CBC program, This Hour Has Seven Days, filmed in 1965.

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