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The Life of Albert Schweitzer


Dr. Peter McDonnell discusses his thoughts on the recent Ebola outbreak in Africa and the physician who inspired the philosophy of reverence for human life.

Dr. McDonnell


As I write this, two Americans who had been flown from Africa to the United States for treatment of active Ebola infection have just been discharged from an Atlanta hospital. The history of physicians from rich countries serving in Africa is a hundred years old. One of the most famous of these physicians was from France.

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Kaysersberg is located in the beautiful Alsace region of France. In the days of the Roman Empire, the Romans planted vineyards there and Alsace produced more wine and higher quality wine than any of part of the empire. The old town, nestled amongst rolling hills of vineyards, looks like what Hollywood would create if it needed a film set for a beautiful, ancient village-complete with thirteenth century castles.

In this town is the home-now a museum-of Dr. Albert Schweitzer. Schweitzer was an interesting person. As a young man, he was a great organist who also studied and published a text on the theory of organ construction. Similarly, he studied and wrote on philosophy.

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At the age of 30, he decided that it was time for him to concentrate on helping others, and the best way to do this was to become a doctor and use his healing powers. He had no background in the biological sciences or medicine at all, and his family and friends were not supportive of this decision.


NEXT: Understanding Schweitzer


Understanding Schweitzer

He then spent the next 7 years pursuing his medical degree. With money he earned giving organ concerts, he established a small hospital in Africa, Lambarene, Gabon. Schweitzer cared for patients with interesting tropical diseases (malaria, cholera, leprosy, sleeping sickness, tropical dysentery, framboesia [yaws]) and other more universal ailments, including strangulated hernias, syphilis, and cancers. In the beginning, his wife Helene functioned as his anesthetist so that he could operate.  He must have cared for people with eye diseases, but I could find no specific record of this.

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The Schweitzer’s time in Africa was not all fun, as they developed some significant illnesses themselves, and during World War I, they were placed in a French military camp because they were then German citizens. He brought his family back to Europe, returned by himself to his hospital, and was there during World War II.

Schweitzer became famous for advocating a philosophy that emphasized reverence for human life. His criticisms of European colonialism in Africa made him controversial. He was in turn criticized by some for having a paternalistic attitude toward the Africans he served, for bringing nurses from Europe instead of training Africans to do this work, and for supposedly not practicing the most advanced forms of medicine in his hospital. He received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952 and afterwards, advocated against the testing of nuclear weapons and for their elimination.


NEXT: Bringing it all to point


He died in his hospital in Lambarene in 1965 at the age of 90 and is buried on the banks of the Ogooue River.

Bringing it all to point

This is the kind of life that merited having a physician’s home turned into a museum.

I have known physicians-including ophthalmologists-who have made major contributions to medicine and received many awards. My thinking, however, is that their homes will not likely be converted into museums upon their deaths. Nor, probably, will this happen to the homes of the medical personnel who are today struggling to overcome their Ebola infections. Instead, their legacies will be the patients whose lives they benefited either directly or through their discoveries that were employed by other physicians to help their patients.

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