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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.

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