Working with Dr. Schweitzer

Forward & Introduction

By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.


Albert Schweitzer built his African hospital in 1913 and worked there until his death in 1965. A remarkably unique community developed around the hospital, there in the midst of the primeval forest; people with very different motivation, background, and education lived and worked together. Sick people came for treatment; pregnant women sought medical assistance in childbirth; orphans were lovingly cared for.

Among the Western physicians were those dedicated to long-term care, while others only engaged in brief and impersonal tasks. Then there were the tourists meddling in this community; some out of enthusiasm for Schweitzer's cause and others driven by curiosity or love of adventure. In such a small community antagonisms and frictions were bound to arise. Remarkably, Schweitzer's community functioned well, pursuing a common goal of caring for the sick and helpless. How was that possible? Emanating from Dr. Schweitzer, the idea of a life devoted to helping became the guiding principle of Lambaréné. He inspired and strengthened the experience of togetherness through his music and meaningful talks.

Louise Jilek-Aall is well qualified to describe this community. Her father was professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo, specializing in classical Greek thought and its influence on Christianity. Her mother, whom I knew and admired, is credited with important ethnological studies and so Louise was guided from early life toward the philosophy and work of Schweitzer. Louise Aall studied medicine in Zurich; tropical medicine in Basel and thus equipped, traveled to the Ulanga district of Tanganyika, now Tanzania, where she worked for years at mission hospitals and aid posts in the bush.

During this time, an ongoing correspondance developed between Dr. Jilek-Aall and our Psychiatric University Clinic in Zurich. The relationship with a young colleague far away in Africa meant much to those of us who were absorbed in a routine of patient service and academic teaching; it widened the scope of our activity.

During her first return, she worked with us at the Clinic and obtained her doctorate in medicine with her dissertation “Epilepsy in the Wapogoro Tribe in Tanganyika.” Shortly before her arrival at Schweitzer's hospital in Gabon, she served as medical officer with the United Nations Forces during the Congo crisis. With these African experiences behind her, she is well able to evaluate Schweitzer's achievement.

Recaptured here, her fascinating life in Lambaréné reflects in a moving way the personality of Albert Schweitzer and the spirit that pervaded the community he created in the jungle of Africa.



Why another book about Albert Schweitzer? The question is indeed justified, as a flood of books and articles have already been written on this man. But time is passing and the living memory of Dr. Schweitzer, who, for several decades influenced millions of people through his writings and his humanitarian work--which gained him the Nobel Peace Prize--is beginning to fade.

In my work as a psychiatrist, I am keenly interested in people who are role models and who serve as ego-ideals, especially for the young; but only a very few appear to be worthwhile models, and I am often at a loss to find a well-known personality of sufficient integrity to present as an example in psychotherapy. Albert Schweitzer was one such role model. An eminent one.

Looking back to the time when I worked as a young physician with Dr. Albert Schweitzer, I remember the stream of people from all over the world who came to visit him in Lambaréné. Many of those people were sick at heart, suffering from what the well-known Viennese psychiatrist Viktor Frankl has called “existential frustration.” This is a serious condition which may lead to loss of the will to live, and to self-destruction if not challenged and remedied. Since tampering with one's life, either through abuse of drugs and alcohol, or through attempt at suicide, is today considered as falling within the realm of psychiatry, such persons are, in increasing numbers, referred to psychiatrists for therapy.

But conventional psychiatric treatment is not the answer to existential frustration. Statistics on the growing rate of suicidal acts, especially among the young, bespeak the dismal failure of modern Western society and its helping professions to deal with these kinds of problems. I often remember how Dr. Schweitzer, confronted with deeply depressed patients, after even but a brief encounter could give back to a despondent person his confidence in man and the will to live.

In order to unravel the secret of the extraordinary “healing power” Dr. Schweitzer possessed, I have dug out my old diary from Lambaréné, and I have studied other biographic reports on him and his work. Except for a few authors, such as James Brabazon in his book, Albert Schweitzer--A Biography, I found to my dismay that few writers have been able to convey a lively image of the man Schweitzer, especially as he was during the last decade of his life.

Taking upon myself to try to do exactly that, I find myself filled with doubts. Are we only portraying ourselves when we describe another person? It is true, we cannot but mold what we see, hear, and feel according to our own perception. An intriguing but disturbing question has pursued me throughout the writing of this book: Why is it so difficult to transcend our little selves and achieve a statement of lasting validity about another person?-- especially when that person is such an overwhelming and unusual one, as was Albert Schweitzer. I was but a young doctor when I wrote my diary in Lambaréné. In this book, 28-odd years later, I want to take the reader back to the 1960s to tell what it was really like to live and work with Dr. Schweitzer in his Lambaréné.

I have tried also to show how his personality marked everybody in his environment and created that basic feeling of trust and hope so important for the healing process. I will attempt to convey that unique quality of life in Lambaréné which grew out of the love and fellowship we felt for him and for each other in our daily struggle. Perhaps compassion, translated into self-discipline and self-forgetting work, as Albert Schweitzer demanded of himself and of us, was the key to his “healing power” and to the happiness that reigned in Lambaréné amid all the suffering.

In the hope that my book will make the reader want to know more of Albert Schweitzer's own writings, I have included a suggested reading list of his main works. One short glance at it will give the reader a feeling of the awesome scope of Dr. Schweitzer's intellectual contributions to the fields of theology, philosophy, medicine and music. Add to this his achievements as a physician, organizer, constructor, and administrator of a hospital complex in an underdeveloped area with one of the most gruesome climates on this globe, and you will obtain an impression of the phenomenal physical and mental capacity of this man. Once, for instance, after a sixteen-hour workday, a friend who found him still active at four o'clock in the morning remarked, “You cannot burn a candle at both ends.” Schweitzer replied, “Oh yes, you can; if the candle is long enough.” Albert Schweitzer's candle burned bright and warm for nine decades.

Dr. Schweitzer was himself not a stranger to modern civilization's dilemma and to the spiritual uncertainty and anxiety so many of us feel, as the following quotations from his book, My Life and Thought will show:

Two perceptions cast their shadows over my existence. One consists in my realization that the world is inexplicably mysterious and full of suffering; the other in the fact that I have been born into a period of spiritual decadence of mankind. (p. 254)

To the question whether I am a pessimist or an optimist, I answer that my knowledge is pessimistic, but my willingness and hoping are optimistic. I am pessimistic in that I experience in its full weight what we conceive to be absence of purpose in the course of world-happenings. Only on rare moments have I felt really glad to be alive. I could not but feel with a sympathy full of regret all the pain I saw around me, not only that of men but of the whole creation. (p.279)

But then instead of despairing or stupefying himself into thoughtlessness, he threw into the battle his whole strong personality, his “willing and hoping” which are optimistic:

From this community of suffering I have never tried to withdraw myself. It seemed to me a matter of course that we should all take our share of the burden of pain which lies upon the world. (p. 280)

As a being in an active relation to the world he (the one who tries to give meaning to his existence) comes into a spiritual relation with it by not living for himself alone, but feeling himself one with all life that comes within his reach.... He will give it (life) all the help that he possibly can, and will feel all the saving and promotion of life that he had been able to effect as the deepest happiness that can ever fall to his lot. Let a man once begin to think about the mystery of his life and the links which connect him with the life that fills the world, and he cannot but bring to bear upon his own life and all other life that comes within his reach the principle of Reverence for Life, and manifest this principle by ethical world- and life affirmation expressed in action. Existence will thereby become harder for him in every respect than it would be if he lived for himself, but at the same time it will be richer, more beautiful, and happier. It will become, instead of mere living, a real experience of life. (p. 268)

It is because the philosophy of Reverence for Life became the principle upon which Albert Schweitzer worked and lived that he has given humanity a precise and positive message of what a person can achieve if he devotes himself unconditionally to such a principle.

The kindness of the heart, deriving from his reverence for life, gave to Albert Schweitzer's naturally domineering personality the charisma which manifested itself in the healing power he possessed and in his ability to help people find meaning in life.

Copyright © 1990 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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