The son of a Lutheran pastor, Albert Schweitzer was born in a small village in Alsace, then part of Germany. By age 29, Schweitzer had already authored three books and made landmark scholarly contributions in the fields of music, religion, and philosophy. He was an acclaimed organist, a world authority on Bach, a church pastor, a principal of a theological seminary, and a university professor with two doctoral degrees.
At the age of 30, aware of the desperate medical needs of Africans, he decided to become a doctor and devote the rest of his life to direct service in Africa. In 1913, at the age of 37, Dr. Schweitzer and his wife, Hélène, opened a hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon- then a province of French Equatorial Africa. Not even serious setbacks of World War I, part of which he and Hélène spent as prisoners of war in France, deterred him from ongoing commitment to his mission.
In 1915, profoundly tormented by the carnage from the raging war in Europe, and troubled daily by the vast numbers of suffering patients coming to his hospital for help, he experienced as a revelation the idea of “Reverence for Life” as the elementary and universal principle of ethics that he had been seeking for so long. By stressing the interdependence and unity of all life, he was a forerunner of the environmental and animal welfare movements – Rachel Carson dedicated Silent Spring to him.
In 1952, at the age of 78, Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. During the last twelve years of his life, his speeches and writings emphasized the dangers of atmospheric nuclear test explosions and the suicidal nuclear arms race between the superpowers.
After retiring as a practicing doctor, Albert Schweitzer continued to oversee the hospital until his death at the age of 90. To the end, his one frustration was that he had not succeeded in convincing the world to abolish nuclear weapons. He and his wife are buried on the Hospital grounds in Lambaréné.
Reverence for Life
“Reverence for Life” provided Dr. Schweitzer with the philosophical and ethical basis of his life’s work for the fifty years between his “discovery” of it in 1915 and his death in 1965. It is simultaneously an extraordinarily simple and an extraordinarily complex and deep idea.