It was partly Albert Schweitzer’s looks that caught the world’s imagination: the bristling walrus mustache, the swept-up shock of silvery hair, the penetrating yet kindly glare of the wise man standing against a backdrop of jungle and river. It was the romance of his life, too. A scholar nearing middle age, with doctorates in theology, philosophy, music, and medicine, he decided as an act of penitence to go to the deep interior of Africa to heal the sick, bringing with him a piano wrapped in a zinc case so he could play Bach in the evening among the cicadas and snakes. And it was the sheer self-sacrifice of the undertaking: around the time of his arrival in 1913, a fifth of all white people in the district would die of accidents and disease in a single year. As for the local Africans, three-quarters of the inhabitants in one nearby village of two thousand would soon perish under a single wave of sleeping sickness. This was the heart of Africa that Schweitzer had come to embrace—and where, half a century later, he laid down his life for it.

As you look out across the placid brown waters of the Ogooué River, half a mile wide, where hippos and crocodiles still swim, the remorseless heat thuds into you, just as it must have assailed this doctor from Alsace when he chugged a hundred miles upstream from the Atlantic coast in a paddle steamer and was rowed ashore in a canoe. In those days it was part of French Equatorial Africa. Since 1960 it has been part of the independent state of Gabon.

A shimmering magic still infuses the village of Lambaréné, where Schweitzer built his hospital. The old chicken hut where he first tended to the sick is now preserved as a museum. The doctor’s bedroom, with white mosquito netting wrapped around a simple bed, has been turned into a memento of his simplicity. His piano, with yellowed ivories now rotten, adorns a little dressing room next door. His big brown leather shoes grace a bedside table, along with a tin wash basin.

His first of many books, On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, published in English in 1922, tells of the hardships and frustrations he endured in creating his hospital. The locals were ravaged by the malign effects of slavery the century before and still lived according to traditional beliefs and customs. They attributed almost any illness to poison or evil spirits cast by jealous neighbors or rival tribes; none could be sent to tend to a member of another tribe for fear of retribution. Schweitzer characterized them as unreliable—resistant to the merits of keeping time, of providing regular labor to help build the hospital, of not spreading contagious diseases, of not stealing, of not lying, of not getting drunk. Cannibalism, he relates, “has not quite been extirpated” among the most powerful of the local tribes. The mentally ill were sometimes pitched into the river to drown.

In his day, Albert Schweitzer was a forerunner of Mother Teresa as the nearest thing to a living saint. Winston Churchill called him “a genius of humanity.” Life magazine in 1947 said he was “the greatest man in the world.” Two years later, Time put him on the cover. Albert Einstein wrote that “nowhere have I ever found such an ideal union of goodness and passion for beauty as in Albert Schweitzer.” A reverential film about him won an Oscar. Bertrand Russell sought his friendship and advice. After Adlai Stevenson twice ran in vain to be America’s president, he thought it wise, as ambassador to the United Nations, to visit Lambaréné in a private plane to ponder the world’s future with the guru. Even James Cameron, an admired British journalist whose writings were among the first to query Schweitzer’s saintly status, described him as “the only man in this century who has become famous by being good.” When Schweitzer won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, for which he had several times been nominated, he gave his reputation an even more dazzling shine by promptly using the prize money to build a leper colony. When Barack Obama won the same prize in 2009, he duly invoked the name of Schweitzer.

In some ways famously determined to set his face against the modern world, Schweitzer nonetheless championed causes that years later have become fashionable. In his early years as a philosopher and theologian, he caused a stir by exploring Jesus’ mental health and sexuality: see his The Quest of the Historical Jesus and The Psychiatric Study of Jesus. He sympathetically examined a range of non-Christian religions, especially Hinduism. His eventual credo, which he termed “Reverence for Life,” sprang suddenly into his mind when he was in a boat on the Ogooué River, “an unexpected discovery, like a revelation in the midst of intense thought.” This he regarded as his greatest contribution to ethics and the one by which he wanted most to be remembered. At the core of his belief was a love of nature and a desire not to kill any living being—crocodiles, rats, even ants and mosquitoes. He became a vegetarian.

At the core of his belief was a love of nature and a desire not to kill any living being.

He was an early tree-hugging environmentalist, deploring the depredations of the timber merchants who cut down the forests around Lambaréné. He inveighed against pesticides. Sometimes mocked, even in his lifetime, for his perceived hostility to mechanization and modernity, he could nowadays be hailed as prophetically ahead of his time for his espousal of green causes and his advocacy of humanity’s need to honor the natural world. In 1939 he wrote:

The slightest disturbance of the now existing atmospheric conditions can bring life on earth to an end. Should there be a deviation in the earth’s rotation around its own axis or around the sun, or should for any other reason the surface temperature vary either up or down, or should she no longer be enveloped in a gaseous protective mantle which serves as temperature regulator, then she will again be without the life which thrives on her now.

In this he was half a century ahead of his time.

He hated nationalism, perhaps in part because he and his beloved native Alsace were caught between the hammer of Germany and the anvil of France. Born as a German in 1875, since five years earlier Germany had grabbed Alsace in war, he was interned as an enemy alien in southern France in 1917. This followed his deportation from his hospital in French Equatorial Africa, where he had saved lives irrespective of nationality or race. “I am in complete disagreement with the spirit of our age, because it is filled with contempt for thought,” he wrote in his 1933 autobiography, published after Adolf Hitler came to power. He vowed never to step on German soil while the Nazis were in charge. At the same time, he never expressed the slightest sympathy for communism.

After World War II he fiercely opposed the development of nuclear weapons, issued his own celebrated “declaration of conscience” against them, and played a part in securing the first nuclear test–ban treaty, signed by the United States and the Soviet Union in 1963. He would have been instinctively against globalization, extolling the community feeling of a village, in Africa and elsewhere.

Yet his legacy, which faced mounting mockery even in his lifetime, is fraught. Broadly speaking, he is charged with two main failings.

First, his achievements as a medical man and as the founder of the hospital that still carries his name have been belittled—and were questioned when he was still alive. Indeed, within a decade of his death in 1965, his hospital almost foundered and has since suffered a number of nearly fatal wobbles.

Second, more controversially, his attitude toward Africans, even allowing for the fact that it was formed out of experience more than a century ago, is nowadays considered shockingly, outlandishly racist. Were he alive today, he would surely be “canceled” across a range of platforms.


Take the first of those charges. Even in Schweitzer’s lifetime his achievements as a medical man aroused a measure of disdain—as well as admiration—from fellow doctors who visited Lambaréné. It was, wrote one of them, “not a hospital but a place for people to stay when they needed medical attention.” By various accounts, it was fantastically unhygienic. Animals—pelicans and antelopes, pigs and monkeys, even a gorilla—would wander through the hospital grounds and sometimes even into the wards in the midst of operations, which the villagers would happily watch through the mesh wire that served as windows.

Albert Schweitzer, 1961 (Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo)

He seemed to oppose modernity. He dismissed evidence that solar topees, which he insisted that his European staff should wear, were pointless. He refused to buy a motorboat, preferring the slower motion of the canoe’s rhythmic paddle. There was no telephone, no running water, and no electricity, apart from a generator that served the operating theater. A sewer ran down a gap between the buildings, clogged with soiled bandages and other detritus.

The European nurses and doctors used pit latrines, while the Africans used the nearby forest. Some visitors reported a general stench. Others said the wooden walls were painted black to hide the dirt. The wife of a French film director wrote in 1962 that “the Schweitzer hospital must be regarded as a sore, a cesspool, connected as it is with typical racist theories.”

James Cameron, visiting in the 1960s, remarked on the “glaring squalor”:

The doctor had fenced off all mechanical advance to a degree that seemed both pedantic and appalling. The rude huts were airless and dark, plank beds and wooden pillows…. It was deliberately archaic and primitive, deliberately part of the jungle around it, a background of his own creation which clearly meant a great deal more philosophically than it did medically.

Another commentator described it as “a chaotic and artificially preserved medical slum.”

Fifteen years or so after his death a new, modern, much bigger hospital was built up the hill, under the auspices of a foundation whose headquarters are still in Schweitzer’s native region of Alsace. Here too his legacy has turned out to be sadly mixed. Schweitzer never trained locals to become doctors. Nearly all his nurses were white women, mainly from Austria, France, Germany, and Switzerland. His own wife and later his daughter, both of whom he was sometimes accused of treating harshly, were crucial to the hospital’s administration. After his death, by which time Gabon had become independent, calls for locals to take control of institutions formerly run by the French colonials extended to the Schweitzer regime. The Gabonization of Schweitzer’s hospital, which the doctor would certainly have opposed, has been a rocky ride.

After Schweitzer’s death his foundation continued to pay for capital costs, projects, and equipment, but, once a completely new hospital was built farther up the hill, the Gabonese state was supposed to pay for salaries and running costs, which began to be paid increasingly late. Money began to go astray. Things came to a head six years ago when the mainly Gabonese staff revolted against a French director who sought to stamp out the false accounting of salaries, late payments, embezzlement, and bogus overtime claims. They carried a coffin with his name on it around the hospital grounds, demanding his expulsion. He was forced out of the country amid accusations of racism. Some of his white colleagues were briefly imprisoned. The foundation in Alsace feared that the hospital might have to close.

An awkward twist to the tale was the acrimony that arose between some of the Europeans in the foundation, who were generally keen to keep control of it, and some of its American backers, who were keener that the local Gabonese should take over. “You think I’m a racist,” the French director subjected to the mock coffin is said to have told an indignant American rival on the board. “But you’re naïve. Nothing in Africa gets done unless white people do it.”

The old guard in Strasbourg, which still oversees the main foundation, seemed loath to trust the local Gabonese to be honest or efficient. With Schweitzer dead, it became harder to raise funds abroad. Since 1981, the new hospital has had no fewer than twenty directors: some retired in despair, others were squeezed out. Those who hoped that it would be a beacon of multiracial harmony have been confounded: the white doctors and nurses and their successors who staffed it have almost all left, many of them bemoaning a perceived drop in standards. During the celebrations in 2013 to mark the centenary of Schweitzer’s arrival at Lambaréné, Gabon’s current president, Ali Bongo, had to pacify the feuding Europeans, Americans, and Gabonese. Not much feeling of reverence for life there.

The current director, Jules Mickala, a Gabonese colonel from the health branch of the ministry of defense, says cagily that the hospital gets by (“On se débrouille”). But he laments that, while the state electricity supply is liable to power cuts, the hospital’s backup generator has been broken for “some months.” He denies, however, that salaries are still being paid months late, as some of his staff contend. A retired nurse who remembers Schweitzer says sadly that the hospital is run by fonctionnaires. “The old spirit of Schweitzer has vanished,” she says. “In those days we worked for love. Now people work only for money.”

The “Village Lumière,” which Schweitzer built for lepers, has only three of the afflicted still living there, since modern treatments have virtually eradicated the disease. But what is left is a slum for ill-paid workers living in tiny windowless stalls. A single tap beside the rutted road seems to service the entire village.


Even in Schweitzer’s lifetime his achievements as a medical man aroused a measure of disdain—as well as admiration—from fellow doctors who visited Lambaréné.

Still, it would be wrong to cast Schweitzer’s medical legacy in an entirely gloomy light. For one thing, the hospital’s mere survival can be marked down as a triumph. Its staff of 200-plus handles 30,000 patient visits a year. It is the most popular hospital for many miles around. Starting from scratch and building many of the original wards and the dispensary with his and his helpers’ bare hands, Schweitzer created a hospital and a community that has served the people and saved thousands of lives for more than a century.

Moreover, it depended entirely on the funds that Schweitzer raised, thanks to his travels across Europe and the United States, where his organ recitals and speeches drew vast crowds of supporters and financial contributors. Since Schweitzer’s death, several thousand “Schweitzer fellows” from America, idealistic young volunteers, have continued to do valuable stints of service in the hospital. The British-based Reverence for Life charity, inspired by Schweitzer, runs projects to help the poor in Haiti, India, and Tanzania, among other places.

In medical terms, the most successful offshoot of the Schweitzer enterprise is the Centre for Medical Research at Lambaréné, known by its French initials, CERMEL, which is located on the grounds of the hospital but independently administered. Funded by the European Union and the German government, among others, its staff of around two hundred has helped recent advances toward a malaria vaccine.

Moreover, Schweitzer’s hostility to modernity, especially in medicine, has been exaggerated. His objection was largely practical: hand tools would last longer than electric ones. A motorized supply of piped water, he reckoned at first, would break down. Schweitzer let the families of the sick come and live with them, cooking their own food and sleeping alongside them in contravention of modern medical norms, because he thought the ailing would otherwise not come at all.

It may all have been basic, but it achieved the doctor’s chief aim, which was to reduce the physical and mental pain of patients who came from far and wide as his fame grew. Nobody was ever turned away because he or she could not pay.


It is Schweitzer’s well-documented racial views that many contemporary commentators find hard to take, even with the passage of time. On the Edge of the Primeval Forest pulls no punches in judgment of the locals. The most famous passage, which long ago acquired notoriety, is worth recording in full, since it was clearly no casual throwaway thought. Indeed, when the book was reprinted several times again during the next several decades, including in the run-up to Gabon’s independence, he left it untouched, suggesting he still held the same view:

A word in conclusion about the relations between the whites and the blacks. What must be the general character of the intercourse between them? Am I to treat the black man as my equal or my inferior? I must show him that I can respect the dignity of the human personality in every one, and this attitude in me he must be able to see for himself; but the essential thing is that there should be a real feeling of brotherliness. How far this is to find complete expression in the sayings and doings of daily life must be settled by circumstances. The negro is a child, and with children nothing can be done without the use of authority. We must therefore so arrange the circumstances of daily life that my natural authority can find expression. With regard to the negroes, then, I have coined the formula: “I am your brother, it is true, but your elder brother.”

Schweitzer also repeatedly refers to the African as “a child of nature,” explaining that his refusal to undertake regular rather than casual work gives him an enviable kind of freedom. Yet Schweitzer seems to accept that an element of compulsion is legitimate in order to make Africans more productive. Nor, though the doctor lists a desire to atone for the dreadful sins of the white man in Africa, does he appear to oppose colonialism itself. “The wealth of the country cannot be exploited because the native has so slight an interest in the process. How to train him to work? How to compel him?” A Gabonese lawyer, Augustin Émane, who wrote a groundbreaking book on Schweitzer, notes his “strange neutrality with regard to forced labor”: the doctor seemed to think it was “not false in principle but difficult to achieve in practice.”   

In striving to build the hospital, his frustration sometimes boiled over. He is reported by various sources to have occasionally hit his workers for perceived laziness. Cameron describes the doctor goading his workers, whom he habitually called “mes sauvages, mes primitifs,” to build the lepers’ village:

It was with a striking absence of the routine saintliness and loving-kindness that the doctor spurred his indigènes to work, abused and upbraided them for their reluctance and indolence. He stumped around the more slothful sections in his vast soft black boots, projecting his great menacing mustache. “Marche! Depèche-toi!” he shouted. “Fais ton devoir, sans discuter!” And the Africans would break momentarily into a semblance of movement. “Toi!–cours! Travaille comme un blanc, quoi!” [“Get on! Hurry up! Do your job, no talking! You–run! Work like a white man, okay?”]

Nor, though the doctor lists a desire to atone for the dreadful sins of the white man in Africa, does he appear to oppose colonialism itself.

He seemed to oppose modernity. He dismissed evidence that solar topees, which he insisted that his European staff should wear, were pointless. He refused to buy a motorboat, preferring the slower motion of the canoe’s rhythmic paddle. There was no telephone, no running water, and no electricity, apart from a generator that served the operating theater. A sewer ran down a gap between the buildings, clogged with soiled bandages and other detritus.

In a second memoir, Histories of the Virgin Forest, published in 1941, he robustly justifies the white man for saving Africans from inter-ethnic massacres:

When the indigenous people express their discontent for being dominated by the whites, I tell them that without us they would no longer exist, since they would have killed each other off or would have ended up in the cooking-pot of the Pahouins [also known as the Fang, a leading Gabonese tribe]. They cannot rebut this argument. In general, despite the mischief for which the whites are guilty in their work of colonisation everywhere, they can however assert that they have brought peace to conquered peoples.

Schweitzer never learned to speak to the locals in their own languages, though he was said by loyalists to understand at least one of them. While he relied heavily on a trusted orderly called Joseph Azowani, he made little effort to train locals to a higher level. He tells a jaundiced tale of an educated local who was asked to help with some physical labor but declined, explaining that “intellectuals don’t collect wood.” Schweitzer said that no Gabonese doctors worked in his hospital because none had volunteered, preferring the better pay and bright lights of Libreville, the faraway capital.

He regarded Gabon’s coming independence with a baleful, even bitter eye. He declared bluntly that it was ridiculous to give the vote to illiterates and that the Gabonese were entirely unready for self-government. “They destroy most things they touch,” Schweitzer told Cameron, a few years before he died:

How many of those who speak savagely and bitterly about the African came out here full of idealism, and have been crushed into weariness and hopelessness by the contest? You ask me whether the indigène can ever develop to responsibility without us and the answer is No, he cannot…. The United Nations Trusteeship Commissions and so forth…Do they ask who plants the trees so that the African can eat, who bores the wells so that he can drink?… Democracy is meaningless to children.

He also incurred the wrath of liberal opinion by siding with the Congolese province of Katanga when it tried to secede from the newly fledged independent Congo in 1960. When his friend Bertrand Russell scolded him for this, Schweitzer riposted that Katanga’s government was efficient and hardworking, whereas Congo’s central one under Patrice Lumumba (soon to be murdered with the CIA’s complicity) was corrupt and inefficient: “Please forgive me for not being able to agree with you, because I know the facts.”

It was this, among other things, that prompted Conor Cruise O’Brien, who served as a United Nations peace envoy to the region, to condemn Schweitzer virulently in 1964 as “a tragic anachronism” representing “to educated Africans and Afro-Americans…the most irritating, if not the most noxious, aspects of the white man in Africa: paternalism, condescension, resistance to change.” O’Brien cites a Ghanaian scholar arguing that “in his famous ‘respect for life’ Schweitzer tends to equate African Negroes [sic] with insects, as two inferior forms of life which must nonetheless be ‘respected,’ since all life is sacred.”

Perhaps the nadir of Schweitzer’s racial standpoint was his apparent endorsement, in conversation with Cameron, of apartheid:

The most salutary influence on the race question had been the late Dr. [Daniel] Malan; that he had never in forty years taken an African to his table; and that indeed in no circumstances could he contemplate even the possibility of an indigène being seated in his presence. There was at the time the baffling suspicion that he was pulling my leg; only later I knew he was not.

Malan was the prime minister of South Africa who in 1948 had enacted the system of apartheid.


Even the most authoritative of the doctor’s many biographers admits “he was constantly shouting at [his African workers], he was calling them monkeys, and very occasionally he was hitting them.”

It is hard to excuse, let alone justify, many of Schweitzer’s attitudes towards Africans, even allowing for the passage of time. For sure, he records his first impressions in 1913 with searing honesty and eminent sympathy for the plight of the locals. But more striking and less understandable is his evident refusal, half a century later, to accept that they could change with time and education.

Aficionados of Schweitzer are unsurprisingly twitchy about acknowledging his racial attitudes, fearing that they unfairly cast a stain over his extraordinary overall achievements. “We are going through a process of trying to come to terms with it,” says a leading light in the Reverence for Life movement. “He was a man of his time who used the language of his time.”

Schweitzer’s prime reason for coming as a doctor to Africa should be remembered as well. “Who can describe the injustice and the cruelties that in the course of centuries they [the Black Africans] have suffered at the hands of Europeans?” Though he did not specify the genocide of the Herero people by his fellow Germans in 1905 in South West Africa (later Namibia), he plainly regarded it with horror.

Although Schweitzer’s language is paternalistic in the extreme, he admired the local Africans’ psychological insights.

Conversations I have had in the hospital with old natives about the ultimate things of life have deeply impressed me. The distinction between white and coloured, educated and uneducated, disappears when one gets talking with the forest dweller about our relations to each other, to mankind, to the universe and to the infinite…. On the whole I feel that the primitive man is much more good-natured than we Europeans are; with Christianity added to his good qualities, wonderfully noble characters can result. I expect I am not the only white man who feels himself put to shame by the natives.

He once said, “Nowhere but in Africa could I have discovered the idea of Reverence for all Life.” 

While Schweitzer refers often to the enmity between Gabon’s different tribes, he notes how the locals were aghast at the scale of the Europeans’ slaughter of each other in the First World War. Moreover, despite his calling as a pastor, Schweitzer was wary of imposing European cultural values on the locals. A visiting doctor in 1961 recalled “a lively discussion at the dinner table with his statement that only those who, through their own action and behavior, were able to convey the very best of Christian civilization to the Africans, had any justification in trying to influence their way of life.” It is notable that, though Schweitzer held regular services, preaching the gospels through interpreters, there is no church within the grounds of the village or hospital. He never sought to dissuade the locals from polygamy.

Admirers of Schweitzer are habitually incensed by what they see as the tendency of his detractors to call out the comments and thoughts that cast him in a bad light, while skating over his overall achievements. “The idea that he was a racist really rubs me the wrong way,” says an American doctor whose grandfather was a close colleague of Schweitzer’s. Confessing to a naïve idealism when she first visited Lambaréné, she points to the enduring differences in cultures: “We do function in a different way.” Is that a racist observation? “You can take a phrase and go in any direction with it and cherry-pick his faults,” says a leading scientist at CERMEL.

Much of his rudeness to the local Africans can be put down not to racist malice but to his autocratic and volatile temperament amid the severe frustrations of trying to build a village and a hospital from scratch, not to mention the climate—the boiling heat, the sudden torrents of tropical rain, the mosquitoes. The Africans, Brabazon noted, often yelled back at him. He was also short-tempered and rude to white people. In his fiery youth, it is recorded, he struck his sister and hit a nephew. Once, in Lambaréné “he hit one of his nurses a considerable whack with a pick handle” for disobedience. “Schweitzer had no time for politeness,” wrote Brabazon. “I hate good manners,” Schweitzer once said.

The accusations lodged by Cameron, one of the most brilliant foreign correspondents of his day, deserve special attention, for his essay is among the most damaging to Schweitzer’s reputation. Though the anecdotes and exchanges illustrated some of Schweitzer’s less attractive features, they should also be seen through the prism of a liberal anti-imperialist jarring against an old man who had made a habit of swiping at anything that smacked of fashionable virtue-signaling. Besides, Schweitzer was a tease who liked to shock liberal opinion-makers, often with a wink.

Take his disparaging comment that Cameron records him making about Gandhi, for whom the journalist had a special regard. After Cameron mentioned that Gandhi had taught him how to eat a mango, Schweitzer said: “There was the classic tragedy. Gandhi was killed in the end by the very forces of the past he had spent his life trying to evoke. A great educator, misled into politics.” Yet Schweitzer deeply respected the Hindu basis of Gandhi’s beliefs and had written copiously about them. His curt remark was probably prompted by a desire to rile up the younger man.

The silly dig at politics was revealing, however. Schweitzer had little time for formal politics; he tended to mock high-flown international rhetoric and to look warily at organizations such as the United Nations, though he had mutually respectful exchanges with Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld. Schweitzer could be naïve, too, when compelled to engage in worldly affairs—for instance, when he was persuaded to endorse East German propaganda as part of his campaign against nuclear weapons.

Cameron’s anti-colonial credentials may have provoked in Schweitzer an adversarial desire to raise his hackles. The doctor’s notorious comments about Malan may fall under a similar rubric, for Schweitzer was known on other occasions to have fiercely condemned apartheid. Yet at the same time he plainly thought that hurriedly granting self-government to Africans, a process then in train across the continent, was unwise; indeed, he thought it “morally indefensible to leave Africans in the lurch,” as one of his modern defenders puts it.

As for telling Cameron that he had never sat at a table with a Black man, this, in Brabazon’s words, was “totally at variance with the facts,” since “Africans sat, lay, and sprawled in Schweitzer’s presence all the time.” Still, Brabazon himself seems to labor his explanation for the doctor’s refusal to eat with his Black staff in a more formal setting: for one thing, “it was a matter of hierarchy and discipline”; for another, the Africans “refused to eat from any pot but their own—a refusal that had its origin in fear of poisoning but had become an unbreakable social custom.” But when African officials came to the hospital as visitors they did eat in the staff dining room like any other guest. Schweitzer exaggerated. Cameron took him too literally.

Whereas it is generally white commentators who are most strident in denouncing Schweitzer for racism, it seems that Africans with a link to Lambaréné express a more nuanced view. Surely, in the first flush of postcolonial indignation, educated Africans tended to be damning in their assessment. Aristide Mba, a Gabonese academic now in America, calls him “a joke.” Others have deemed him “an anachronism.” A senior figure of color at the World Bank recently judged him “a racist who took bad care of his patients.”

But others sound more tolerant. The late Ali Mazrui, a Kenya-born scholar of Swahili descent noted for his pan-African views, was the Albert Schweitzer Professor in the Humanities at the State University of New York at Binghamton. In accepting the chair, he made subtle distinctions between three different types of racism: “malignant racism (racial hostility or contempt for others), benign racism (racial ethnocentrism without aggression) and benevolent racism (racial paternalism and altruistic ethnocentrism).” Schweitzer, he reckoned, was a racist of the benevolent kind.

In Docteur Schweitzer, une Icône Africaine, Augustin Émane, who was born at Lambaréné and now teaches labor law at Nantes University in France, quotes a number of Africans who knew the doctor. Their overriding judgment is that Schweitzer was a disciplinarian who asserted his superior status but nonetheless respected them as people. “Of course we were very critical of Schweitzer as a colonialist, a racist,” says Émane of his days as a young man born soon after independence. “But when I took a real interest in his life and talked to people who knew him, my opinion changed a bit…. He was a just man.” Regarding the notorious “African as younger brother” phrase, Émane says that in colonial times few whites would accept the “brother” epithet at all, however qualified. “Brother,” by the standard of the era, was progressive.

Quite often Émane’s witnesses recall how Schweitzer was “feared,” especially when he was in a bad temper. An old woman who remembers him from when she was a girl says you were expected to look humbly at the ground when he spoke. Several of Émane’s sources mention that he sometimes “slapped” his staff (“Parfois il a usé de la gifle”) but add that, once the doctor’s anger had subsided, laughter would resume. “Respect” is a word that crops up repeatedly. Most Africans with links to Lambaréné insist he respected the local people, even amid bursts of anger, frustration, and abuse.

Maman Sophie, a famous figure in Lambaréné, speaks in grateful awe of Schweitzer’s achievements as founder of the hospital where she worked for thirty-four years. “He respected everyone—animals, children, all human beings.” She airily dismisses the charge of racism. “You must know that in those days there were no évolués,” meaning educated Africans who had assimilated with whites.

Another phrase that echoed repeatedly during a recent visit to Lambaréné was that “he was a man of his time” (“Un homme de l’époque”). Not a single local Gabonese said bluntly, “He was a racist,” preferring to use euphemisms, often expressed with a smile. Most of the people who had personal links with Lambaréné expressed pride in their association with “Le Grand Docteur,” as he was invariably addressed. “L’esprit de Shezzair,” as locals pronounce his name, was frequently intoned, always with reverence. “Reverence for Life” was often mentioned, as if it gave Lambaréné a special cachet.

“He was like a God,” says Praxedt Ndolo, daughter of Joseph Azowani, Schweitzer’s longest serving medical orderly, the Black man with whom he probably had the closest relationship. Incidentally, Ndolo went out of her way to explain why her father was not buried alongside Schweitzer: he preferred interment in his own village of birth. It has been suggested that there was racial segregation even in the little cemetery where Schweitzer and a dozen of his closest companions now lie, in graves marked by modest little wooden crosses: indeed, all those buried are white.

Mickala, the hospital’s current director, sounds irritated by the racist tag. “Of course he was not a racist: he came here to do good, he looked after everyone, he worked for the love of the people here, he died here. He didn’t look at the color of their skin or at their religion—all were equal.”

Gabon’s current president, Ali Bongo, once told a visiting professor from America how, when he traveled abroad as a young man, almost no one had heard of Gabon, “but everyone had heard of Lambaréné and Albert Schweitzer—he put our country on the map.” In 2013 he led the way in celebrating the centenary of Schweitzer’s arrival. “Grand Docteur,” he declared, “you have not left us, you will not leave us! I am certain that your memory and the spirit you inspired will not perish and that your life’s work and brotherliness will live on in the Gabon of tomorrow.” Even more strikingly, seeing that Schweitzer had openly doubted the wisdom of granting Gabon independence, the country’s first president, Léon M’ba, who considered himself a close friend of Schweitzer, asked him to represent France’s African states at the United Nations Commission on the Rights of Man.

Was Schweitzer a racist? Even his most devoted followers find it hard to deny that some of his attitudes—even allowing for historical context—cannot be called anything else. Can a racist also be a virtuous and great man? Nowadays many would say that that is impossible. But most of the good people of Lambaréné evidently beg to differ.

Xan Smiley is editor at large for the Economist.

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Published in the February 2023 issue: View Contents
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