Visiting Albert Schweitzer

Dr. Albert Schweitzer. August 15, 1959

Dr. Albert Schweitzer. August 15, 1959

A humanitarian is a man who believes that no human being should be sacrificed to a project — especially to the project of perfecting nuclear weapons to kill hundreds of millions of people.”

-Albert Schweitzer. “A Nobel scientist speaks: Every test kills…” Liberation (New York) 2, no. 11. February 1958.

In 1959 Linus and Ava Helen Pauling embarked on a trip to west central Africa for purposes of visiting Albert Schweitzer at his hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon. Excluding a hiatus during World War I and brief trips to Europe throughout his life, Schweitzer had, since 1913, lived and worked at the Lambaréné compound, offering medical attention to the natives of what was then known as French Equatorial Africa — a region described by Pauling as

“…one of the most inaccessible areas of the world. An area heavily infected with sleeping sickness, elephantiasis, malaria, schistosomiasis, Framboesia, leprosy and many other terrible diseases, a large area without a single doctor.”

Schweitzer, a theologian and practicing Christian, believed his actions in Africa to be of utmost personal importance.

As the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize winner, Schweitzer was deeply concerned about the dangers posed by nuclear weapons and worked with the likes of Albert Einstein and Bertrand Russell in protesting the atomic bomb. A signer of Pauling’s petition against the testing of nuclear weapons, Schweitzer was a friend and correspondent to the Paulings, and his concept of “reverence for life” became a central tenant of the Paulings own political philosophy.

Over the course of their two-week stay, the Paulings were profoundly impressed by the immensity of the jungle, the nature of the native peoples, and the sheer tenacity of Schweitzer and his colleagues who had built and supported the primitive medical station. Ava Helen’s diary of their trip to the compound is particularly fascinating. In it she records an almost stream-of-consciousness account of the sights and sounds encountered in this most foreign of lands:

“It is beautiful here, and chaotic — goats, chickens, ducks, pigeons everywhere. A beautifully tended garden — eggplant, beans, peppers, tomatoes, carrots, beets, lettuce, cabbage, Chinese cabbage, turnips, kohlrabi. Caged pelican, antelope, tame parrots, toucans, wild pigs, sheep looking about like goats except tails hang down, goats’ stick up.”

Elsewhere Ava Helen recounts a number of anecdotes relating to their visits with Schweitzer, including his affectionate relationship with a wild pig:

“The wild pig who slept on his porch, but Schweitzer had to put him to bed — fluffed his cushion and then played Brahms’ lullaby! Schweitzer said pigs very intelligent.”

The Paulings returned to the U.S. with a great respect for both Schweitzer and his work among the disenfranchised. In 1964, Linus Pauling and his colleague Frank Catchpool (who worked with Schweitzer at the Lambaréné hospital) would pay tribute to Schweitzer, noting that

“Of the thousands of millions of human beings who have lived during the first half of the Twentieth Century, we may expect that the memory of only a few will be preserved in history….[Among those is] Albert Schweitzer, who will be remembered as an outstanding musician and musicologist, philosopher and moralist, physician and humanitarian, and leader of and active participant in the effort to save civilization from destruction in a nuclear war.”

Read more about Albert Schweitzer on the website “Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement: A Documentary History.”

5 Responses

  1. Ava Helen Pauling’s diary is very interesting. I typed it up so Thurston Moore could mail a copy to Schweitzer’s daughter She had not seen it before.

  2. […] to England and a nine-lecture No More War! tour through West Germany. Following that came their visit with Albert Schweitzer in Lambaréné, French Equatorial Africa (present-day Gabon), after which they returned to Europe […]

  3. […] the chemist’s peace work – including a visit with Schweitzer in Gabon. An earlier post on the Pauling Blog delved into the specifics of that visit and the history behind it: A signer of […]

  4. […] Visiting Albert Schweitzer:  a review of the Paulings’ trip to Schweitzer’s medical compound in central Africa – in Linus Pauling’s estimation, “one of the most inaccessible areas of the world.” […]

  5. […] posts about, for example, Linus and Ava Helen Pauling’s trip to Lambaréné, Gabon in 1959 to visit Albert Schweitzer.  The trip is touched upon in the Linus Pauling and the International Peace Movement documentary […]

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