Working with Dr. Schweitzer


By Louise Jilek-Aall, M.D.

The day finally came when a physician fresh from Europe arrived in Lambaréné to take my place so that I was free to return to my work in East Africa.

Dr. Schweitzer insisted on personally arranging my journey. He corresponded with the Dutch Shipping Company to secure a space for me on one of its freighters which frequented African ports, taking on and unloading goods on its way. It would pick me up at Port Gentil at the mouth of the Ogowe River and, after a few weeks of sailing, drop me off at the port of Dar es Salaam in Tanganyika. Dr. Schweitzer not only paid me well for the time I had worked for him, but he also paid my whole journey around Africa with a ticket for a first-class cabin on board the Dutch ship. When I wanted to thank him for his generosity, he brushed me off with the words: “You deserve it.”

When my things were packed and carried aboard the riverboat that would take me to Port Gentil, Dr. Schweitzer and all the staff accompanied me to the landing.

It was with mixed feelings of sadness and relief that I took leave from Dr. Schweitzer. He took my hands in both his and held them firmly. But the sadness in his eyes filled me with a sense of depression and my voice was choking as I tried to thank him for the memorable time I had spent in Lambaréné.

“No,” said Albert Schweitzer in a gentle voice, “the thanks are ours. You not only helped us out in a time of crisis, but you cheered us up with your youth and happy disposition.” He looked contemplatively into my face. “If you continue to work diligently at strengthening your personality, you will become a successful healer of men.” And with these cryptic words he stepped back and let the others crowd around me to bid farewell. As I went up the gangway, friends and patients waved their friendly goodbyes from the shore and from doors and windows at the hospital. Some boys even shouted from the trees into which they had climbed and from little canoes which they paddled alongside the boat. They tried frantically to keep their little crafts abreast, but laughingly gave up as the ferry turned sluggishly into the current. The African passengers, with their children and bundles, laughed at all the commotion.

It was a joyful scene in spite of the sadness of the moment. Dr. Schweitzer, with the tropical helmet on his head, waving his hand at me, could easily be distinguished in the crowd. The commanding figure standing erect among his much younger co-workers, burned itself into my memory, for I knew we would never meet again.

As night fell, people lay down to sleep wherever they could find a place between heaps of sugarcane, bananas, and maniok. By pushing aside bundles of clothes, pots, and pans, I too made a space to stretch out on deck, but I could not fall asleep. Lying there in the mild tropical night, I pondered over Dr. Schweitzer's farewell words: “...A successful healer of men.”

Then I realized that he had used the word “healer” instead of the common word “physician,” as in conversations with me before. A healer stands for much more than does just a physician. A healer restores to health both the spirit and the body of those who suffer. Albert Schweitzer was a healer; I had witnessed it many times. Before I came to Lambaréné I had thought of the ideal physician as the one who could make the right scientific diagnosis and who knew the best medicines to cure the illness.

As I lay there staring up at the brilliant night sky, drifting down the same river where Albert Schweitzer had conceived the idea of Reverence for Life, it dawned upon me that I still had a long way to go before I would become “a successful healer of men.” I had to smile there under the stars. Dr. Schweitzer's words held a promise. He had given me a challenge and a legacy, which I could not ignore.

After a most enjoyable journey around Africa, life again took me along in such a whirl of work and events that I hardly ever found time to think about Albert Schweitzer. But it might well have been the encounter with him which years later made me take up psychiatry, as it appeared to me the most challenging and fulfilling branch of medicine.

It was not until 20 years later, while grappling with the question of why so many young people today engage in self-destructive behavior, that the inspiration of Dr. Schweitzer and my memorable time in Lambaréné returned in full clarity to my conscious mind.

I began to wonder how some of these disheartened youngsters would react to the experience of staying for a while in Lambaréné. True, Dr. Schweitzer is not alive anymore, but his hospital is still there. Thanks to the efficient leadership of Albert Schweitzer's long-time coworker and appointed heir, Dr. Walter Munz, the hospital complex at the Ogowe River, now enlarged and modernized, still reflects the spirit of Dr. Schweitzer. The thousands of visitors to Lambaréné every year testify to this.

I do not pretend to be a competent interpreter of Albert Schweitzer's philosophy or religious beliefs. Others have done this in a much deeper and more scholarly way than I could ever do.

I shall be perfectly happy if I am able to influence readers through my book in such a way that they will want to know more about this remarkable person, this healer. There is a vast literature about Dr. Schweitzer to choose from. But the best way to learn to know him is through his own writings, especially through his autobiography, My Life and Thought. Although it was written already in his 56th year of life, it contains his basic philosophy and gives a moving and vivid testimony of the man, his thoughts, motives, and hopes. As he writes:

I intentionally avoid technical philosophical phraseology. My appeal is to thinking men and women whom I wish to provoke to elemental thought about the questions of existence which occur in the mind of every human being. (p. 233)

For those of us who have experienced the exasperating fatigue of the evenings after a day's work in the tropical heat, where even to write a few notes in the diary becomes a dreary task, it is nearly incomprehensible how Dr. Schweitzer was able to produce intellectual works of the highest quality year after year besides his daily work as a physician.

That he was not always able to escape from the incapacitating fatigue and its consequences that we others know so well becomes clear from a few passages in his books:

With this continual drive and impatience of the waiting sick, I often get so worried and nervous that I hardly know where I am and what I am doing.”

(Primeval Forest p.65)

... At times I am so depressed that I can hardly summon up energy enough to work.”

(More from the Primeval Forest p. 122)

To me, one of the most touching statements of his struggles is from his autobiography, where he writes:

In my own life, anxiety, trouble, and sorrow have been allotted to me at times in such abundant measures that had my nerves not been so strong, I must have broken down under the weight. Heavy is the burden of fatigue and responsibility which has lain upon me without a break for years. I have not much of my life for myself, not even the hours I should like to devote to my wife and child. (page 281-282)

Right after having admitted this human weakness, however, he is quick to counteract it by assuring his readers that positive things outweigh his difficulties, such as how his excellent health and a well-balanced temperament, for which he prides himself, permits him to bounce back with renewed energy. He also counts among his blessings the help and affection he receives from friends and colleagues. Last but not least, he mentions the opportunities he has (after dark) to occupy himself “in the sphere of the spiritual and intellectual.”

Dr. Schweitzer repeatedly counts this sphere as the most important of activities which helped to keep him healthy while working in the African jungle:

One evening, however, as in a melancholy mood I was playing one of Bach's organ fugues (Dr. Schweitzer had an instrument built especially for the tropical climate), the idea came suddenly upon me that I might, after all, use my free hours in Africa for the very purpose of perfecting and deepening my technique. (p. 170)

Elsewhere, he puts it even more succinctly:

The intellectual as odd as it may sound can stand life in the jungle better than the uneducated because he has a kind of recreation that the latter does not know of.”

(Zwischen Wasser und Urwald p. 126 -Author's translation)

And so at the end of this book I will let Albert Schweitzer give his message, especially to all those people who suffer “existential frustration,” and to those who have lost their direction in life or their will to live in the face of all the misery and cruelty of the world today.

He wrote this passage in his autobiography more than 50 years ago:

But however much concerned I was at the problem of the misery in the world, I never let myself get lost in broodings over it; I always held firmly to the thought that each one of us can do a little to bring some portion of it to an end. Thus I came gradually to rest content in the knowledge that there is only one thing we can understand about the problem, and that is that each of us has to go his own way, but as one who means to help bring about deliverance.

In my judgment, too, of the situation in which mankind finds itself at the present time I am pessimistic. I cannot make myself believe that that situation is not so bad as it seems to be, but I am inwardly conscious that we are on a road which, if we continue to tread it, will bring us into “Middle Ages” of a new character. The spiritual and material misery to which mankind of today is delivering itself through its renunciation of thinking and of the ideals which spring therefrom, I picture to myself in its utmost compass. And yet I remain optimistic. One belief of my childhood I have preserved with the certainty that I can never lose it: belief in truth. I am confident that the spirit generated by truth is stronger than the force of circumstances. In my view, no other destiny awaits mankind than that which, through its mental and spiritual disposition, it prepares for itself. Therefore I do not believe that it will have to tread the road to ruin right to the end.

If men can be found who revolt against the spirit of thoughtlessness, and who are personalities sound enough and profound enough to let the ideals of ethical progress radiate from them as a force, there will start an activity of the spirit which will be strong enough to evoke a new mental and spiritual disposition in mankind.

Because I have confidence in the power of truth and of the spirit, I believe in the future of mankind. (pp. 280-281)

Copyright © 1990 Louise Jilek-Aall
Reprinted with permission

[Previous Chapter]     [Contents]     [Next Chapter]

to top

Internet Mental Health ( copyright © 1995-2011 by Phillip W. Long, M.D.