The Great Man Who Became a Trivia Answer


The other night, at a social gathering of affluent, well-educated people, mostly in their 30s and 40s, the name Albert Schweitzer popped up, and someone asked "Who?" Some (the older) were aghast, several (the younger) indignant that not recognizing the name should be regarded as reprehensible, and the few able to identify the name did so with the smugness of a Trivial Pursuit player scoring a point.

Reputations blossom and fade, but only the greatest of them achieve immortality and flourish forever. And now and again a reputation, seemingly destined for immortality, collapses for no apparent reason, and all but vanishes with the death of the subject.

At the time of his death a quarter-century ago, Albert Schweitzer, 1952 Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was universally regarded as a great man. Few had combined almost total selflessness with such high achievement in so many fields -- music, philosophy, theology, medicine and literature. The whole world knew of his hospital at Lambarene, and scores made their way there; his name was even more of a household word than Mother Teresa's is today.

Schweitzer, however, is no longer read or discussed, and most people today would be hard put to identify Lambarene, or to say in what land it lies. The Schweitzer bubble is burst, partially because his adulation was often based on the wrong reasons, partially because the immediate post-war decades, in which it waxed, were another time.

He was born in 1875 in Alsace, a peculiar corner of Europe. France and Germany bickered and fought over it for centuries, and here their discrete cultures overlapped and melded; Alsatians are neither purely French nor German. Technically a German at birth, he was treated as an enemy alien by France in the first World War, but became a French citizen when the Versailles Treaty returned Alsace to France in 1919. Schweitzer, however, was immune to patriotic appeals from both nations, and thus the more free to devote himself to humanity.

By 1900, he was a leading authority on Immanuel Kant and the philosophy of religion; he was also a world authority on Johann Sebastian Bach and a world-famed organist, who published and recorded a critical edition of Bach's organ works.

Then, in his mid-30s, he entered medical school, took his degree, and in 1913 departed the world stage to open a Protestant missionary hospital at the fly-speck, fever-ridden trading post of Lambarene, far up the Ogowe river in what was then French Equatorial Africa. He stayed there the rest of his life, 52 years, until, aged 90, he died in 1965. (Lambarene is today in Gabon, independent since 1960.)

His reasons were never quite clear; Schweitzer talked of serving those who "live without help, or hope of help," although a man of his talents and reputation might have found a broader front on which to wage that battle.

French Equatorial Africa had been cobbled together in 1910 from what are today the Central African Republic, the Congo and Cameroon, as well as Gabon; the entire rain-soaked region was thinly populated by an assortment of Bantu people and a handful of French administrators and traders.

Schweitzer, for all his "humanity," had no illusions about the local Fang; a compassionate (and a rather authoritarian) paternalism was the best he could muster, and he never regarded them as "equals" except in the possession of souls. No African doctor ever served at Lambarene in his time; no black ever sat in his presence.

The medicine he practiced, moreover, was antiquated and his facilities were (perhaps understandably) shockingly unhygienic. He resisted every effort to introduce modern methods and equipment, and accepted traditional customs. (There was no hospital kitchen; patients' families camped by their cots in the open wards, and were expected to feed and nurse their relatives.)

Books and monographs on philosophy and theology continued to emanate from Lambarene; fame came only after World War II, with his inspired choice as a Nobel laureate. Air service put Gabon in reach of those with the price of a ticket.

And they came; the rich, the famous, the media and the cranks. The world was awed by the vision of an eminent intellectual who had turned his back on the world to help the suffering -- a one-man Peace Corps in his private Shangri-La. The example of a pacifist and a naturalist who shunned technology appealed mightily to a world emerging from a six-year holocaust, and being forced to come to grips with nuclear weaponry. Schweitzer was pure mind and spirit and idealism, and he lent himself to peace causes -- some of dubious origins.

His fame died with him in 1965 (his daughter continued to manage the now-modernized hospital). In some strange fashion, he was only a symbol of what we all were then striving for, not an entity in his own right. One wonders, a quarter-century down the pike, how many will remember Mother Teresa.

Donald R. Morris is a free-lance columnist.

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