By Dr César Chelala
I first learned of Dr Albert Schweitzer’s work when I was a medical student in the 1960s. During those years, the story of Schweitzer’s efforts to improve the health of Africans in his hospital in Lambaréné ignited my companions’ and my imagination. It was thus with a sense of privilege that I visited his hospital, where his excellent work continues today. Sadly, the same cannot be said about the continuation of his message of peace.
Schweitzer’s own life, before his work in Africa, had been extraordinary – that of a man blessed with many talents. Born in Alsace in 1875, he became an outstanding organist and musicologist while quite young, particularly excelling in 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 to study philosophy at the Sorbonne and to continue studying the organ. At 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 had 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, 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, from what had been a chicken coop, and worked there until his death in 1965.
Conditions at the hospital were extremely primitive. In her memories about working with Dr Schweitzer, Dr Louise Jilek-Aaal tells how during an operation, “it happened that a lizard, overpowered by ether vapours, dropped from the ceiling right into the open abdomen. Without a word, the surgeon took the forceps, fished out the lifeless animal, and threw it over his shoulder. He sprinkled antibiotic powder into the abdomen and continued the operation as if nothing unusual had happened. The patient never showed any ill effects from that unexpected intruder.”
Early on in his career he became a staunch peace activist. His activities gained him the admiration of figures such as Albert Einstein and U.S. Presidents John F. Kennedy and Dwight D. Eisenhower. One day, looking at a herd of hippos in the Ogowe River, he developed his idea of reverence for life: “The greatest evil is to destroy life, to injure life, to repress life that 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 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 conducts malaria research and houses a museum that includes the bedrooms of Schweitzer and his wife.
The hospital, considered one of the best in Gabon, serves not only people from that country, but also those from neighbouring countries. One original feature of the hospital is that family members are allowed to live with patients receiving treatment, thus eliminating the sense of alienation many patients feel in strange hospital surroundings.
Paradoxically, although his medical work has continued since 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 the Gandhis, the Martin Luther Kings or the Schweitzers of today? And I couldn’t help but compare those giants of peace with the caricatures of leadership we have in the world today.
Dr César Chelala is an international public health consultant and a co-winner of an Overseas Press Club of America award.