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Dr. Schweitzer’s Lost Message

I first learned of Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s work when I was a medical student in the 1960s. During those years, the story of Dr. Schweitzer’s efforts to improve the health of Africans in his hospital in Lambaréné ignited my colleagues’ and my imagination. It was thus with a sense of privilege that I visited his hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon, where his excellent work continues today unabated. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the continuation of his message of peace.

Schweitzer’s own life, before working in Africa, had been extraordinary, that of a man blessed by many talents. Born in Alsace in 1875, he became a remarkable organist and musicologist quite young, and particularly excelled in performing the works of Johann Sebastian Bach.

At Strasbourg University he pursued courses in philosophy and medicine, while continuing his musical training. When he was 22, he won a scholarship that allowed him to study philosophy at the Sorbonne and to continue studying the organ. At the age of 24, he received his doctorate in philosophy and the following year his doctorate in theology. When he was 26, he was elected head of the Theological Seminary of St. Thomas in Strasbourg.

Schweitzer’s academic achievements didn’t prevent him from leading an active social and musical life. His recitals and concerts took him to several European countries where his performances were attended by a large, admiring public.

Hidden behind his successful career, however, were the yearnings of a young man eager to find a more profound meaning to his life. When he turned 21 he made a crucial decision: he would pursue his own personal interests until he reached 30. After that, he would devote his efforts to serve his fellow men, to pay what he considered his “debt to humanity.” To that end, and taking time from his musical studies, he pursued a medical career. Quite by chance, he read a report of the Paris Mission Society about the desperate medical needs of the natives of Africa’s Upper Congo and decided to work in Africa.

His decision to reject certain fame and fortune to go to Africa dismayed his family and friends. One of them, the dean of the medical school, advised him to see a psychiatrist. Undaunted, he built a small hospital in Lambaréné, then French Equatorial Africa, in what had been a chicken coop, and worked there until his death in 1965.

Early on his career he became a staunch peace activist. His activities in favor of world peace gained him the admiration of figures like Albert Einstein and Presidents Kennedy and Eisenhower. One day, looking at a herd of hippos in the Ogowe River, he developed his idea of “reverence for life.” According to it, “The greatest evil is to destroy life, to injure life, to repress life which is capable of development.” In 1952 he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize. The money from the award went to fund the creation of a village for lepers close to his hospital called “Village of Light,” for the hope it still brings to those affected by the disease. He felt that through his medical work he was, in a small scale, compensating the black people in Africa for all the damage the white man had caused them.

The Schweitzer hospital is now a modern facility in a new location. In addition to clinical and surgical wards it also conducts malaria research and houses a museum which includes the bedrooms of Dr. Schweitzer and his wife.

The hospital, considered one of the best in Gabon, serves not only people from that country, but also people from neighboring countries. One original aspect of the hospital is that members of the patients’ families are allowed to live with the sick person while he/she is being treated, eliminating the sense of alienation many patients feel in strange hospital surroundings.

Paradoxically, although his medical work continues after his death, his message of peace has been lost in today’s world, ravaged by perverse wars and unnecessary loss of life. Standing in his room and feeling the force of his personality, I thought that later generations have betrayed his legacy of peace.

Looking at the old piano in his room, the only luxury he allowed himself during his years in Africa, I wondered where are today the Gandhis, the Luther Kings or the Schweitzers of our world.

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Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”

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