If you ever wonder what your purpose in life might be, consider this…
It’s the birthday of Albert Schweitzer, born in Kaysersberg, in the province of Alsace-Lorraine (1875). He was a theologian, a musical prodigy, an author, and a philosopher, an expert on Bach, Goethe, and Kant. When he was 21, he made a plan: for the next nine years, he would devote himself to science, art, and religion. But once he turned 30, he would spend the rest of his life serving humanity. And so, on his 30th birthday, he decided to become a medical missionary to Africa.
Although Schweitzer had a good career as a professor of theology and a Bach scholar, he entered medical school when he was 30 years old. His wife, Hélène, trained as a nurse at the same time, so that she could help him with his work. On Good Friday, 1913, they set sail for French Equatorial Africa to set up a hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon. He designed the hospital, helped to build it, and paid for it himself out of money he had earned giving concerts. In the early days, the building was little more than a chicken coop, and it was hard work clearing the thick jungle. They had only just gotten started when World War I broke out, and the Schweitzers — who were German citizens — spent four months as prisoners of war. They were sent back to a French prison in 1917, and when the war ended, Schweitzer took up his old life — teaching, preaching, and giving organ recitals — until he could return to Africa again in 1925. After eight years, the jungle had taken over the grounds, so Schweitzer moved the hospital site a couple of miles away, on a better plot of land.
The hospital was rustic, even dirty, by Western standards. Most of the work was done by the light of kerosene lamps because there was no electricity except in the operating rooms. There were no phones and no radios. Patients were encouraged to bring in family members to cook and care for them. Schweitzer extended his reverence to animal and insect life as well; he was a vegetarian and wouldn’t even kill ants or mosquitoes. Animals were allowed to roam about freely, and a hippo once invaded the vegetable garden.
In 1952, Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He used the prize money to expand his hospital, adding a treatment center and housing for lepers. His Nobel lecture, called “The Problem of Peace,” remains one of the best speeches ever given. In it, he said: “What really matters is that we should all of us realize that we are guilty of inhumanity. The horror of this realization should shake us out of our lethargy so that we can direct our hopes and our intentions to the coming of an era in which war will have no place.” He campaigned against nuclear weapons for the rest of his life.
At his 90th birthday celebration, he told co-workers at his Lambaréné hospital, “I belong to you until my dying breath.” He died eight months later, in the hospital he built, and he was buried next to his wife near the banks of the Ogooue River. Hospital workers and patients attended his funeral, and his grave was marked by a cross Schweitzer had carved himself. As it approaches its 100th birthday, the hospital that Schweitzer started in a chicken coop now treats more than 35,000 people a year.
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