by Dr. Edgar Berman
I knew very little about Albert Schweitzer before picking up this memoir at The Book Thing out of curiosity. Schweitzer was a brilliant philosopher, theologian and a virtuoso on the organ. His great loves were writing, studying religion and music. As far as I understand it, he was Lutheran and wished to travel to then-French colonized Africa to preach to the natives, but the church declined to send him because his historical studies of the life of Jesus were considered heretical. So at the age of thirty he took a three-year course at a medical school and then went to Gabon to set up a hospital in the jungle on the edge of a river. There was no other medical care available in the area at the time, people would travel from hundreds of miles away. Schweitzer treated the impoverished native people for myriad diseases and injuries, in appallingly primitive conditions, while indulging in his desire to preach the gospel (his view of it, over the supper table more or less) to them. Schweitzer received the Nobel Prize in 1953 for his humanitarian work. He used the money to build a sanatorium for lepers on his hospital grounds. He ran his hospital, living in rough conditions without electricity and many other conveniences, for some fifty years.
Anyway, this book was written by a surgeon who deliberately volunteered to go work at the hospital in Gabon because he wished to get to know the famous man, and question him personally about his views. He was honest about his intentions and Schweitzer reportedly said well, if you work hard and prove yourself, we\’ll get to know each other. So part of the book is about conditions in the hospital, how the local people were treated, how the staff was managed, certain medical cases and surgeries the author assisted at or performed himself. The rest of it relates the private talks he had with Schweitzer (which some of the staff resented, as they were not on such close terms with the man in spite of having been there much longer, and had to often act as interpreters for these conversations as well). They discussed religion, medicine, music, touched a bit on recent history- the atrocities of WWII were painfully close and that subject often avoided- and especially Schweitzer\’s personal philosophy of reverence for all life. He had a pet deer, pig, owl and myna bird, and allowed various monkeys, goats and chimpanzees to roam the hospital grounds freely. I liked reading the few descriptions of the animals. One incident where an elderly tribesman brought his wounded, ill dog in for treatment, which Schweitzer took quite seriously, was very touching.
In all, the description of work at the hospital was very interesting, the chapters on philosophy and religion could get tedious- either because they were frankly over my head, or simply outside of my interest. There was an obvious contrast when the author once went downriver to perform an emergency surgery at another small hospital (because its surgeon was drunk, a state he cultivated to forget the horrors he had survived as a prisoner of the Nazis). This other hospital had more modern, pristinely clean facilities which impressed the author, but the surgical tools were so crude he had difficulty performing the operation. After several months spent working at Schweitzer\’s hospital and living in awe of the man\’s company, the author returned home, obviously relieved at having modern comforts again. He returned once more to Gabon some twenty years later, after Schweitzer had died and the hospital was run differently, and reflected upon the improvements made, but the loss of \”spirit\” that had once pervaded the place.
I looked up some stuff after reading this book. The hospital still exists in Gabon, it is now a world heritage site. The original buildings are part of a museum, and newer ones operate as a research and medical facility providing care to the locals.
Rating: 3/5 308 pages, 1986