Working with Dr. Schweitzer

Chapter 1. Meeting Albert Schweitzer


By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.
Albert Schweitzer is a trustworthy advisor in a time of uncertainties and a staunch guide in a world shaken in its foundation. That is what we thank him for. If this is humanism, then we want to be humanists. If this is Christianity, we want to be Christians.

(Professor Hygen at the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway, 1954)

- Author's translation


When Albert Schweitzer, the famous “jungle doctor” came to Oslo to receive his Nobel Peace Prize in 1954, I was in medical school there. Seldom had a Peace Prize winner been welcomed with such enthusiasm. To prepare the young people for his visit, study groups and seminars on his life and philosophy were held in schools and universities all over the country. Spontaneous collections for Dr. Schweitzer's hospital in Lambaréné were started by people of all walks of life and, before he returned to Africa, we Norwegians presented him with a donation matching the Nobel Prize itself.

Already well established as a philosopher, theologian, and musician, Schweitzer took up medicine at the age of 30 to work as a physician in the hottest jungle of Africa; in forsaking an already secure career, he set an example that had a tremendous appeal, especially to the disillusioned youth of the post-war period. Some youngsters looked with envy upon us medical students because, in a way, we were closer to Dr. Schweitzer and his humanitarian mission than they, by the mere fact that we were to become physicians.

On the evening when Albert Schweitzer accepted an honorary membership in our student association, the students organized a torchlight procession from the old university to the City Hall, where the festivities took place. Thousands of enthusiastic youths joined us on the march.

When Albert Schweitzer and his wife stepped out onto the balcony of the City Hall, the astounded jungle doctor was greeted by a throng of about twenty thousand, gathered on the huge square below. A group close to the balcony began to sing an old Norwegian hymn; others joined in and soon an ocean of voices reached the old doctor, expressing to him the warm feelings he had created in us all. It was our way of thanking Albert Schweitzer for having given us a new sense of worth and direction.

We were thanking him for the message he gave us--a message so simple that everybody, young and old, could understand it, and still so deep and meaningful that it would live in us for years to come:

‘Recognize the will to live in yourself and in others! Not the thoughtless, egocentric and hedonistic wish to enjoy life for yourself, but the deep urge to be part of Life itself, in all its manifestations. When you discover in your heart compassion for other living beings because they also want to live, and when you feel the wish to help those who suffer, then you will experience a mystic reverence for Life. Each of us can serve Life individually, on a larger or smaller scale. We can deepen it through our thinking, beautify it through our actions, relieve it from pain and further it through progress in science and technology.’

This Reverence for Life is the ethical core around which Albert Schweitzer built a philosophy that he felt would help modern civilization to survive.

This optimistic view of Life and the possibility of our finding meaning in Life would probably not have been accepted so readily by many of us had it not been for the person who advocated these thoughts. Dr. Schweitzer was, to us, a living symbol of what he preached. He won everybody's heart because of the warmth of his strong personality, paired with humble humaneness. This was felt most strongly by those who met him personally, but it was also experienced by those who received his message through the mass media.

Years passed. After I had finished my medical studies and taken a course in tropical medicine, I set out for East Africa, full of idealism in my heart and with a small research grant in my pocket. During the three years that followed I went through a hard school of disillusionment, and suffered bitter disappointment for not being able to live up to the high expectations I had brought with me to the African adventure.

Finding myself as a lone bush doctor in the interior of Tanganyika, now Tanzania, I experienced the helplessness of a single physician when facing the natural catastrophes so frequently encountered in that continent: floods and droughts, epidemics, hunger, and starvation. Physically exhausted, often lonely and fearful, I would struggle through endless hours of work, only to see the dismal impact my efforts had on the people I wanted to help--a fate that touches all those who dare to challenge illness and death in Africa.

I had to learn to compromise between the primitive means at my disposal in the African wilderness and the medical standards I had been taught at European universities; and I came to admire the tenacity and ingenuity of the European missionaries I met, who carried out their humanitarian work undauntedly in spite of the untold suffering and deprivation they had to endure.

When the Congo crisis erupted in 1960, I interrupted my work in Tanganyika to follow a request by the International Red Cross for physicians to work with the United Nations Forces in that war-torn country.

It was February, 1961, when my duties as medical officer with the United Nations Forces in the Congo (now Zaire) terminated. Exhausted from the arduous times which had just come to an end, I decided to have a few weeks' vacation and to take a boat trip around Africa instead of flying back to Tanganyika. Tracing my forthcoming boat voyage on a map in a travel bureau at Pointe Noire in the French Congo, I discovered that Lambaréné, Gabon, was not far away. Since I had to wait for about a week before the boat could pick me up at Pointe Noire, I decided to visit Albert Schweitzer, who was still living and working at his hospital in Lambaréné.

With curious eyes I watched the passengers waiting at the airport for the plane to Lambaréné. It was easy to pick out the American tourists with their cameras and their sporty clothing. Their youngish faces were not marked by hard work in the tropics like those of the khaki-clad Frenchmen over in the corner. The African women with their children and many bundles, who accompanied grave-looking husbands in dark business suits, appeared ill at ease.

I was nervous, too. As usual in Africa, I was the only white woman among many travelers and did not fit into any group. Now, on the way to Lambaréné, I felt uncomfortable. Could I just drop in on Albert Schweitzer as an uninvited guest? I looked at the smartly dressed tourists; many of them were obviously on their way to visit him. Through the engine noise I heard them mention his name. Not to cut too insignificant a figure among these self-assertive men, I made up my mind to stay overnight at Lambaréné village, and not to appear at Albert Schweitzer's hospital until the next day.

It was already late afternoon when the plane descended through the clouds. Down below one could see the brown arms of the Ogowe River. The tropical forest looked like a thick, bluish-green carpet and the buildings along the river like insignificant spots on that carpet.

The American tourists crowded into an elegant speedboat which was to take them up-river to Dr. Schweitzer's hospital, while I took my place among the other passengers in a broad ferry, which carried us across the stream to the picturesque village of Lambaréné.

I found a little hotel. The friendly French host assured me that Dr. Schweitzer received any guest with utmost courtesy. I could therefore look forward with some confidence to next day's meeting. Plagued by nightmarish dreams about the war in the Congo, I woke up confused and sweating late the next morning. The heat was intense and I hastened to get up.

True to my principle of always approaching an important place on foot, I set out on a scenic path along the river. The heat was so oppressive that I nearly regretted my intention as I marched along, keeping to the shadow of the trees as much as I could. It was the beginning of the rainy season. The river was swelling with flood water, the air was heavy with humidity, and I was soon dripping wet. The road seemed without end. I was finding out that Dr. Schweitzer's hospital was a few hours' walk from Lambaréné village.

At last I came to a lush meadow on the river bank. Here I saw a familiar scene: a Catholic Father in his long, white cassock watching a flock of laughing school boys swim and romp in the water. The sunlight glistened on their brown bodies. I could see the Catholic mission between the trees. The day's teaching was over and the boys were enjoying a free spell before the evening service. Even as I watched, the church bells started ringing and the priest urged the boys to hurry up.

I greeted the surprised Father and asked for Albert Schweitzer's hospital. He pointed across the river. There, under palm trees, blending in with the tropical forest, I saw a few low buildings. The Father called an old man who had been watching the boys from his canoe, and asked him to take me across. Then he hurried up the hill behind his boys.

The old African watched me in silence as he paddled across the river. I sat in front, eagerly looking out over the rushing waters towards the other bank.

This, then, was the famous Schweitzer hospital. No big, white stone structures of the type I was used to seeing in Africa. I saw only low barracks, some stretching out along the beach, others half hidden up on a hill under tall palm trees. The dense, tropical forest along with its rich variety of broadleafed evergreen trees had barely receded and seemed ready to engulf the whole complex again.

“The buildings are too close to the river bank,” I thought. “They will surely have to be evacuated if the flood waters should rise any further.”

On the other hand, I could see the convenience for seriously sick patients being brought in canoes right up to the hospital doors.

As the old man helped me ashore, refusing any payment for his service, he asked, “How long are you going to stay?”

“About three days--I think.”

“Three days only? I don't believe you,” he murmured.

I looked at him in surprise. Little did I know then that an epidemic of measles was ravaging the people of the area, bringing scores of sick children to the hospital. My medical services were therefore urgently needed. I finally ended up staying for several months as a co-worker, instead of just three days as a visitor.

At the moment, though, I felt a bit astonished as I turned away from the ferryman and looked around. As I hesitated, the old man in the canoe, his face wrinkled with laughter, pointed to a narrow path up the hill.

Walking slowly up the path leading to Dr. Schweitzer's house gave me time to take a closer look at the hospital complex I had seen from the river. Was this really Dr. Schweitzer's famous Lambaréné hospital?

The long barricade--like wooden buildings stretching out along a central stony passage looked old and insignificant to me. The rusty sheets of iron which were used as roofing would keep out the rain well enough, but would also make it intolerably hot in the houses during the day. At least the walls were thin, however, and there were ample window--like openings for the air to flow freely through the rooms, and this should ease the worst discomfort.

Behind the first rows of buildings were similar clusters of houses. Pots and pans, eating utensils, clothes and heaps of bananas and other foodstuffs lying around indicated that these were African living quarters. All the buildings were connected by stony steps and narrow passways. The whole complex looked more like a large African village than a hospital.

The living quarters for the staff were also wooden barracks, with chicken-wire windows. They were grouped around a courtyard. Long tables were placed in a row in the shadow of big trees, where joking African women were busy ironing heaps of hospital sheets while small children played at their feet. Some men repaired tools in one corner of the yard.

Everywhere there were animals: chickens, ducks, a peacock, goats, dogs, and cats swarmed around, making their familiar noises. From a tree, two half-grown chimpanzees were swinging and grimacing, announcing my arrival with shrieking voices. The women looked up and greeted me with friendly smiles; the children came running and wanted to play.

I looked at the scene in front of me. How long ago it was since I had seen such a peaceful place! Untidy, dirty, overcrowded maybe--but very cozy and relaxing. One did not have to be alert and on guard all the time, as in the Congo where I had just come from. This was a good place! The thick forest seemed to stand on guard, keeping out the restless new spirit which was gripping other parts of Africa.

A tall, thin, rather ghost-like woman came out of a door. Her pale lips smiled as she greeted me. It was Mlle Mathilde Kottmann, the faithful old secretary who had worked for Dr. Schweitzer since his earlier years and who had been a true companion through all the difficult years in Lambaréné. I was to learn that she had a decisive influence over everybody who was in Lambaréné and that nobody could get to Dr. Schweitzer without first approaching her and getting her approval.

Embarrassed, as if I had been caught looking into a forbidden paradise, I stuttered something. She gave me a friendly tap on the shoulder. Dr. Schweitzer would come out in a moment, she said. It was supper time and he would soon be on his way to the evening meal.

Work hours were over, and people came from the hospital and from their quarters, assembling in the courtyard. She introduced me to them all. I was surprised to see so many European doctors, nurses, and other helpers. A few of the tourists from the plane were also among them. We were all waiting for Albert Schweitzer. A huge, beautiful bird came flying from the forest and landed on the porch. This was Parcival, the pelican. He, too, was waiting for Albert Schweitzer.

At last the door opened and Albert Schweitzer stepped out. His once so powerful figure was slightly stooped and the wrinkled skin on his bare arms and neck were signs of considerable loss of weight. The khaki shirt and faded trousers were hanging loosely around his old body. He smiled happily when he saw the pelican. The pride in having such a mighty bird of the wilderness perching at his doorstep was reflected on his face. He gave Parcival some food from a bag he carried for that purpose.

“Guten Tag, Doktor Schweitzer,” I said and stretched out my hand. He glanced at me from under his thick, frowning eyebrows.

“Who are you, young lady?” It sounded not unfriendly, but rather indifferent--an endless stream of women, young and old, had passed through Lambaréné! He looked a little closer as Mlle Mathilde introduced me to him. “And what do you want to learn from me?” he asked, slightly more interested.

What a question! A flood of memories came to my mind. The idealized image I had when reading and dreaming about Albert Schweitzer as a young girl--the memory of that day in Oslo when he received the Nobel Prize and we students came with torches and sang for him, expressing our youthful admiration--the thoughts his philosophical writings had stimulated in me when I was at university--the inspiration his work had given me during my own struggles in Africa!

What could one answer in such a moment? Walking along the river this morning, crossing it with the old man in the canoe, and sensing the harmony of the place had made a great impression on me. I desperately sought for an answer. I did not want to be womanly sentimental, but my lips started to tremble. I suddenly remembered the helpless, lost feeling I had while struggling alone with difficult patients in the African bush....

“I would very much like to learn how to extract teeth,” I heard myself say.

It was an impulse, a thought bursting from my lips in reaction to the difficult question. The famous man looked at me in amazement, then a light sparkled in his old eyes and he started to laugh. The doctors and nurses, Mlle Mathilde and guests, all looked quite startled, the pelican flew away, the chickens and ducks scattered about, and the dogs began to bark. Dr. Schweitzer had apparently not been laughing like that for a long time.

“That's a girl,” he exclaimed, “a true bush doctor! I know the agony of pulling teeth alone in the bush. You have come to the right place. I have an excellent dentist at the hospital. With him you can pull teeth all day long. Ha-ha-ha!”

Albert Schweitzer laughed all the way across the yard and into the dining room. I had made a successful entry.

In spite of the insignificant appearance of the building, the dining room looked very impressive. The long table, where up to fifty people could be seated, was tastefully decorated and warmly lit by a row of flaming kerosene lamps placed in the middle.

Dr. Schweitzer sat down at the center of one side of the table. Beside him to his right was his favorite colleague, then followed the other doctors; to his left, Mlle Mathilde and the nurses. Facing Dr. Schweitzer on the other side of the table were the guests. Those newly arrived were placed close to his seat, the most important guest being seated facing him so that the two could converse easily.

I was later told that the only way one could guess at Dr. Schweitzer's interest in a specific guest was to see how many days it would take before the guest was placed further and further down the row, away from him. Well, that evening I held the privileged position. My unconventional appearance onto the scene had pleased him and I made every effort to keep his interest alive in the weeks to come. Happily, I never had to move more than one seat away from that central place, maybe because he continued to be amused about my straightforward manners.

Before he started to eat, Albert Schweitzer said a short prayer in German. “Wir danken Dir Herr, denn Du bist gütig und Deine Güte währet ewigtich.” (We thank thee, Lord, for thou art kind and thy kindness lasts forever.)

During the meat, which was served by friendly African helpers, some huge old dogs came to the table. They were big enough to overlook the table when they sat down, watching everybody with human-like eyes. The dogs knew the rules at Dr. Schweitzer's table very well--and also how to get around them by playing up to new, innocent guests. The dogs smelled badly, but I politely caressed them and gave them the tidbits they expected. Amused, doctors and nurses waited for my reaction to the comments they knew Dr. Schweitzer would make:

“In the tropics you must never handle dogs whilst eating, and if you want to touch a dog during mealtime, use only the back of your hand,” he informed me; “and, of course, never touch its mouth.”

Then, to the dogs: “Allez donc!”

Reluctantly, the huge dogs retreated to their allocated place. I felt a bit embarrassed.

When he turned to other guests, I had more time to observe him. What impressed me most that first evening, as it had in Oslo years before, was his great personal warmth, shining out from behind an almost shy modesty; a kindness that shimmered in his eyes. He seemed to feel obligated to give something worthwhile to each guest. With tact and sensitivity, he found a charming and meaningful comment for even the most nonchalant and critical visitor. Soon, all faces around the table were aglow with happiness.

After the meal, Dr. Schweitzer pushed aside his plates to make room for a pile of books, which were now placed in front of him. With a knowing hand, he opened a huge old Bible and read a passage. Quoting from the other books and adding his own comments, he developed a philosophical discourse on the biblical theme. Everybody listened attentively, some jotted down what he said, and the boldest came out with their own thoughts. I felt like a privileged student taking part in a highly sophisticated philosophy seminar.

The particular passage that evening was taken from Christ's Passion. The theme was the apostles' reaction to Jesus' martyr's death. Dr. Schweitzer commented that in their deep grief and exalted expectation, some of the apostles experienced a vision, seeing their beloved teacher Jesus after his death, as if floating in the air. That Jesus actually ascended to heaven in body and spirit, and even partook of a meal with the apostles, was a much later version, said Albert Schweitzer.

He went on to elaborate on basic differences between Catholic and Protestant beliefs. Catholics need miracles; even today the Church is always looking for miracles as testimony for the existence and glory of God. St. Paul did not need miracles; for Protestants, the Word is enough: “‘Blessed are they that mourn, for they shall be comforted; blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called the Children of God.’ These words of Jesus are the real miracles to me,” said Albert Schweitzer, and closed the books, thus ending his daily evening presentation for his staff and guests.

He stood up and walked over to the piano to play a well-known tune; everybody sang along. After a while, our mentor seemed to forget those around him. He let his music glide over into very personal compositions. We fell silent and listened, deeply moved, to the incredibly soft, mild, and harmonious melodies which flowed so easily from his fingers.

He suddenly interrupted himself. “That's enough for today. Good night.”

Without saying another word, he quickly left the room as if embarrassed, followed by the two faithful companions, Mlle Mathilde and Nurse Ali Silver, who had also worked with Dr. Schweitzer for many years and had become, with time, just as indispensable to Lambaréné as Mlle Mathilde. We others stayed on, discussing what we had just heard and talking about the events of the day.

The nurses' quarters where I was to sleep were as simple as the rest of the hospital: no electric light; no running water; a portable kerosene lamp, and a small jug of water with a little washbasin; a narrow bed; a table; a chair, and a small closet, was all the comfort available. Each room was separated by a thin plywood wall, through which we could easily have conversations from room to room. To the front and to the back were no walls at all, only wire screens fine enough to keep out the mosquitoes. It allowed us to benefit from the slightest cooling breeze, something very important during the hot and humid season. The sweet smells and the many noises of the African night passed through it without obstruction.

Lying in bed there in the pitch black night after the lamps were turned off made one acutely aware of the thin and fragile barrier between oneself and the untamed nature outside. It was a unique experience and probably quite frightening to persons not used to the tropics. But the symphony of these smells and sounds had a soothing effect even on the tensest person, and made one relax and listen.

Then, through the darkness, mingling with the rustling of the leaves and the buzzing of the mosquitoes, came the most wonderful, crystal clear melodies--it made you hold your breath in awe. The great organist Schweitzer playing Bach!

Every evening after retreating to his room, he would sit at his specially built organ and play Bach for hours. It was not just playing for pleasure. If he missed a note with his old fingers, he would stop and meticulously play the passage over and over again until he mastered it. Then he would start the piece from the very beginning and play it without mistakes. A joyful message, the melody flowed out to the trees and found its way to the tired listeners in the houses around.

It reached us all, deeper and more meaningful than in any other place, holding out a promise that somewhere, some time, beauty and kindness will triumph, that love and harmony will prevail in a land ... the promised land we all are longing to find.


Copyright © 1990 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

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