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Albert Schweitzer

Missionary Doctor
1875 to 1965

Born on 14 January 1875 to a Lutheran minister of the German-speaking Alsace, Albert was raised in a highly educated family that excelled particularly in the fields of music and religion. Jean-Paul Sartre was a cousin. Albert’s family was deeply rooted in the church; both grandfathers were ministers and he followed suit by pursuing theological studies. A distinguished organist, he first performed publicly at the age of nine.

In 1893 Schweitzer enrolled in the University of Strasbourg and completed a doctorate on Kantian philosophy in 1899, which included studies at the Sorbonne and the University of Berlin. He became a licentiate in theology the following year. For more than a decade he served the Theological College of St. Thomas, during which time he published his most famous work, The Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906), as well as a highly regarded biography on Bach and works on organ building.

In order to fulfill his desire to serve in the mission field of Africa, prompted by reading an article by the Paris Missionary Society highlighting the urgent need for medics in French West Africa, Schweitzer began medical studies in 1905. In 1913 he and his wife established a hospital at Lambaréné (then French Equatorial Africa), but four years later as a result of World War I they were interred in a French prisoner-of-war camp.

Returning to Europe in 1918, the Schweitzers stayed for six years. Schweitzer lectured in theology, preached in his local church, performed concerts and furthered his medical studies. During this period he wrote four books: On the Edge of the Primeval Forest (1922), The Decay and Restoration of Civilization (1923), Civilization and Ethics (1923), and Christianity and the Religions of the World (1923).

In 1924, with his wife too ill to accompany him, Schweitzer returned to Lambaréné where he remained for the rest of his life. His daughter Rhena joined him eventually and took over as the hospital administrator. Through his personal contributions and fundraising the hospital grew from originally being housed in a chicken coop to a facility with a 500-patient capacity. Schweitzer continued to pursue all of his interests by serving as the surgeon in the hospital, pastor to the congregation, musician and author of a number of subsequent works. He received a number of honorary doctorates and the Goethe Prize from Frankfurt. In 1952 he was awarded the Nobel Prize, the monetary aspect of which went toward expanding the hospital at Lambaréné.

On 4 September 1965 Schweitzer died at the robust age of 90 and was buried in the hospital mission at Lambaréné.

His publications include: Quest for the Historical Jesus (1906); J. S. Bach, Le Musicien-Poète (1905); J. S. Bach (German, 1908; English, 1911); Deutsche und französische Orgelbaukunst und Orgelkunst (1906); The Psychiatric Study of Jesus: Exposition and Criticism (1911); The Mystery of the Kingdom of God: The Secret of Jesus' Messiahship and Passion (1914); On the Edge of the Primeval Forest (1922); The Decay and the Restoration of Civilization (1923); Civilization and Ethics (1923); The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1930); More from the Primeval Forest (1931); Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography (German, 1931; English, 1933); Indian Thought and Its Development (1935); Afrikanische Geschichten (1938); From My African Notebook (1938; 1939); Peace or Atomic War? (1958); and The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity (1968).

  • R. Scott Spurlock, University of Edinburgh