Peace Corps Writers
With Albert Schweitzer in Gabon

Editor's note
page 1
page 2
page 3

Dr. Schweitzer of Lambarene by Norman Counsins is no longer in print. However, Amazon will query their network of used bookstores for you if you request.

Evenings with Dr. Schweitzer
After dinner talk in the dining room is perhaps the day’s most interesting hour. The conversation several evenings ago led by Dr.Schweitzer, Martin Niemoller, and Marion Preminger touched in order of the following subjects: Humorous incidents in doctoral oral interviews, the origins, through Louis XIV, of the ecumimical movement in Alsace, anecdotes from the life of Albert Einstein(a close friend of Dr. Schweitzer’s), stories of concentration camps during the Nazi period (Dr. Niemoller, a present leader of both ecumenical and nonviolence movements in Germany, spent eight years in a concentration camp), the effects of the congress of Vienna on the resistance to the slave trade in Africa. These widely diverse topics flowed into one another and were illuminated by Dr. Schweitzer’s splendid sense of humor and his great store of anecdotes that end up making an observation, often profound, that hits you before you stop laughing and somehow remains lodged in your mind. When he feels the message to be particularly important, he shakes his finger and emphatically winks his right eye, giving a wry smile that is most compelling. For a man of his age, his memory and keenness are remarkable. His humor saves him from the fate of the wagon without springs that is jolted by every pebble in the road. He has time for every visitor, and most go away surprised that they spoke for so long and so well with this busy man. When three top photographers from the B.B.C. came to make a documentary of the 90th birthday, they said they had never experienced such patient and delightful co-operation from any other important man.

Christmas in Lambarene
Christmas here found a young full palm tree, covered, in German fashion, with lighted candles, in the dining room. Of course, it had been carefully excavated so it could be replanted alive after it had served as our Christmas tree. In the afternoon the children in the leper village depicted the story of Christ’s birth with a play, singing in colorful African costumes. How thought-provoking and touching to see an African child in the manger. Christmas presents were then given by the hospital to all the workers after Dr. Schweitzer had read them the nativity story from Luke. At dinner on Christmas Eve we sang carols and four of us sang a melody of English Christmas carols and then some German carols with my guitar accompaniment. Before dinner we had gone from house to house in the hospital, singing songs of Christmas to the patients and a great group of children. Each person here makes (not buys) a Christmas present and, after dinner and singing, they were exchanged by an ingenious system of completing famous quotes. That great room, full of fine people, lit by flickering flames, contained a most unusual and wonderfully welcome spirit of Christmas.

Schweitzer’s Birthday
January 14 was Dr. Schweitzer’s 90th birthday, for which friends had come from around the world. To start the day, at 6:30 a group of us, staff and visitors, sang a four part Bach chorale on his porch while he was still in bed. Breakfast was special with butter, presents on the table, candles, and a speech following the meal, in which the doctor recalled his early days in Lambarene and the way that two Gabonese workers helped him to realize that a modern European hospital was not what the local people needed. Photographs were taken after breakfast with even Life magazine on hand to do a picture story. A children’s choir from the leper village sang songs and had a gay time. The doctor received hundreds of visitors and led them on personal tours up and down the steep pathways of the hospital, answering questions, telling stories and emerging from the exhausted group to welcome new arrivals, friends, photographers, and journalists. No one could believe that this was a man of ninety or doubt that he would reach one hundred with ease.

Last Day at Lambarene
My last day at Lambarene, Dr. Schweitzer invited me into his study to talk and to say thanks for the help. As in a description vaguely remembered of Admiral Rickover’s office, the desk supported piles of letters and books, and the shelves were stuffed with more books and daily work. We talked in depth about the life of Jesus, the role of the individual working toward world peace and understanding, his friendship with Albert Einstein, and the reason for the hospitals lack of latrines, among other things. I had read all of his writings while at the hospital except The Quest of the Historical Jesus. This he gave me as a present, wrote a thought in the cover and included several nice portraits of himself with it.
     The staff, many workers, and Dr. Schweitzer came down to the riverside to say goodbye and watch the pirogues carry us away, across to Lambarene town. A more difficult farewell from such special people and so many new friends would be hard for me to imagine.

A Final Letter
This letter has been painful to write, for what wanted to expand into full detail and completeness constantly had to be amputated and compressed. Perhaps nowhere has the fullness of Lambarene been so well portrayed as in Norman Cousins’ book: Dr. Schweitzer of Lambarene. Schweitzer, he concluded must be judged not only for what he personally created, but for the great inspiration that his life has given to so many, since he has made his life his essential argument. He is as much a symbol as a fact. Aware of he criticisms of the hospital and the Doctor’s attitude towards Africans, so difficult to grasp in its complexity, Mr. Cousins concludes that history will rightly count Dr. Schweitzer among her great men: “A man does not have to be an angel to be a saint.”

William Shurtleff is the director of the Soyfoods Center, headquartered in Lafayette, California. The company is the world’s leading source of information on soyfoods maintaining databases and a research library, consulting and publishing. Currently, Shurtleff does extensive writing on soyfoods and currently has 80 titles listed on including The Book of Tofu, America’s best selling book on tofu.

Home | Back Issues | Resources | Archives | Site Index | Search | About us | To contact us

Bibliography of Peace Corps Writers | PC writers by country of service

E-mail the with comments
or to be added to the new-issue notice list.
Copyright © 2008, (formerly RPCV Writers & Readers)
All rights reserved.