The Measure of a Physician: Albert Schweitzer

GundermanThere are different ways to take the measure of a life.  John Rockefeller, the richest person in the history of mankind, once asked a neighbor, “Do you know the only thing that gives me pleasure?  It’s to see my dividends come in.”  Television magnate Ted Turner once said, “I don’t want my tombstone to read, ‘He never owned a network.’”  And musical artist Lady Gaga has described her quest as “mastering the art of fame.”  But wealth, power, and fame are not life’s only metrics, and September 4 marks the 50th anniversary of the death of one of the 20th century’s brightest counterexamples.

His name was Albert Schweitzer.  Winston Churchill once referred to him as a “genius of humanity,” and a 1947 issue of Time magazine dubbed him “the greatest man in the world.”  Though Schweitzer held four doctorates and achieved worldwide fame as a musician, theologian, medical missionary, and promoter of a philosophy of “reverence for life,” for which he received the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize, his most enduring contribution lies in his lifelong commitment — both theoretical and practical – to the suffering.

Schweitzer was born 1865 in the Alsace region of what is now eastern France, the son of a Lutheran pastor whose grandfathers were both accomplished organists.  Though already a world-renowned musician and writer, at age 30 Schweitzer decided to answer a call to missionary work, spending the next seven years of his life studying medicine.  Once he finished his medical studies, he and his new wife, Helene, traveled 4,000 miles to set up a missionary hospital in what is now Gabon in west central Africa.  There he spent most of the rest of his life, eventually dying there in 1965.

Schweitzer recognized how puzzling his choice appeared to many of his fellow Europeans.  When his family learned of his plans, they expressed exasperation that he would “bury his talents in the jungle.”  A friend warned him that he could do so much more for Africa by remaining in Europe and lecturing on the need for medical assistance.  And when he first proposed embarking on a seven-year course of medical study to the dean of the medical school, the man responded that he“would like to hand me over to a colleague in the psychiatry department.”

Yet Schweitzer was not dissuaded, largely thanks to his deep sense of calling.  In the opening sentence of his 1922 book, On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, he confronts the question directly: “Why did I give up my professorship at the Phys, my literary work, and my organ playing, in order to go as a doctor to Equatorial Africa?”  The answer, from Schweitzer’s point of view, was simple: the more he learned of the miseries of the native people, “the stranger it seemed that we Europeans trouble ourselves so little about this great humanitarian task.”

Schweitzer writes movingly of what he calls “the Fellowship of those who bear the Mark of Pain.”  He is referring not just to people who have experienced severe deprivation, injury, and illness, but also to those who have witnessed such suffering first hand.  “One and all they know the horrors of suffering to which man can be exposed, and one and all they know the longing to be free from pain.”  He calls on those whose suffering has been relieved to resist the temptation to take up life as it was before and instead, as those “whose eyes are now open,” to bring relief and comfort to others in pain.

Against legions of skeptics who brand such ideas impractical, Schweitzer counters that “sooner or later they will conquer the world, for with inexorable logic they carry with them the intellect as well as the heart.”  To those who say that the efforts of just one person would mean little, he responds that even “a single doctor with the most modest equipment means very much for very many.”  Are such efforts worth it?  The good that just one person can accomplish, Schweitzer writes, “surpasses by a hundredfold what he gives of his own life and the cost of the material support that he must have.”

Yet Schweitzer recognizes that his calling is not for everyone.  Referring to the village that developed around his hospital on the banks of the Ogowe River, Schweitzer once told a physician who had come to work there, “There is not one Lambarene.  Each person can have his own Lambarene.”  He conveyed a similar sentiment to his granddaughter Christiane: “You can have your own Lambarene anywhere.”  In other words, the first step may not be to set off to some far-flung corner of the world, but to recognize the suffering on our own doorstep.

To those who sense the power of his call but long for a reprieve before answering it, Schweitzer responds that truth has no special time of its own.  Its hour is “now – always, and indeed most truly when it seems most unsuitable to actual circumstances.”  In other words, the call to serve deserves a response in any time and place.   “Care of distress at home and care for distress elsewhere help each other if, working together, they wake men in sufficient numbers from their thoughtlessness, and call into life a new spirit of humanity.”

This was Schweitzer’s mission – not to amass wealth, power, or fame, but to share them with others in pursuit of nobler goals.  He served not as a means of building himself up, but instead with the hope of devoting all the resources at his disposal – his intellect, his artistry, and his faith – to the care of others.  As he approached his death in Lambarene at the age of 90, he recognized that his life’s work had not yet been completed.  But he also knew that he had done everything he could to invite others to join him in the Fellowship of those who bear the Mark of Pain.

Richard Gunderman is Chancellor’s Professor in the Schools of Medicine, Liberal Arts, and Philanthropy at Indiana University.

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