Primary Care

Life Lessons from Albert Schweitzer

Richard Colgan, MD

“I do not know your destiny, but I do know one thing: the only ones among you who will be really happy are those who will have sought and found how to serve.” 

             – Albert Schweitzer

The art of caring had many proponents in the 20th century and we’ve already looked at some of these luminaries. Florence Nightingale (Consultant, December 2012) is a name that is recognized around the world, even today, as someone who dedicated her life to caring for her patients. Sir William Osler (Consultant, September and October 2013) took the art and teaching of medicine to a new level. He urged physicians to use all of their senses when evaluating patients and to show equanimity and imperturbability when practicing medicine. The third healer in this series, Albert Schweitzer, committed his life to service and as such, taught the art of medicine by example as he served the poor at his jungle hospital in Gabon. Schweitzer’s lesson continues to resonate: There is no greater motto that one could follow than to live a life of service.

The Younger Years

The Alsatian Lorraine theologian, physician, philosopher, and Nobel Prize winner Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) exemplified a life committed to serving others. He was the son of a minister, born into a family that highly valued the pursuit of scholarly activities and religious study. Schweitzer received a doctorate in philosophy in 1899 and a licentiate in theology from the University of Strasbourg in 1900. By the age of 29, he was recognized as a renowned scholar in both disciplines, earning theological acclaim for his book, The Quest of the Historical Jesus

Interestingly, Schweitzer was also an accomplished organist and earned money by performing throughout Europe for much of his early life. These funds would later be used to establish the jungle hospital he founded in Lambaréné, now present day Gabon. 

He was a musicologist as well as performer and published a biography of Johan Sebastian Bach in French in 1905, a book on organ building and playing in 1906, and rewrote the Bach book in German in 1908. 

Recognizing that he was born to privilege, at 21 years of age, Schwitzer made the decision to dedicate his life to the service of others when he turned 30. 

A Student of Medicine

Having determined to go to Africa as a medical missionary rather than as a pastor, Schweitzer began the study of medicine at the University of Strasbourg in 1905. After obtaining his MD degree in 1913, he founded the hospital that now bears his name at Lambaréné in French Equatorial Africa. 

In 1917, Schweitzer and his wife were sent to a French internment camp as prisoners of war. Released in 1918, Schweitzer returned to Europe and spent the next 6 years preaching in his old church, giving lectures and concerts, taking medical courses, and writing. Schweitzer published many texts including: The Decay and Restoration of Civilization (1923), Christianity and the Religions of the World (1923), On the Edge of the Primeval Forest (1931), and Civilization and Ethics (1946). Like several of the other healers previously mentioned,1 Schweitzer was an advocate for ethical behavior and service to those less fortunate. 

On these humanistic notions, Schweitzer writes to a group of nursing students: 

“You ask me to give you a motto. Here it is: service. Let this word accompany you as you seek your way and your duty in the world. May it be recalled to your minds if ever you are tempted to forget it or to set it aside. Never have this word on your lips, but keep it in your hearts. And may it be a confidant that will teach you not only to do good, but to do it simply and humbly. It will not always be a comfortable companion but it will always be a faithful one. And it will be able to lead you to happiness, no matter what the experiences of your lives are.”2

Marvin Meyer, director of the Albert Schweitzer Institute at Chapman University, writes in his forward for Reverence for Life: The Ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the Twenty-First Century that Schweitzer preached how “all of us are brothers and sisters of the suffering; we all belong to each other.” Schweitzer taught that we no longer belong to ourselves and that we must help those suffering, calling this the “fellowship of those who bear the mark of pain.”2,3 

This concept remains true today. As healthcare professionals, we are directly involved with those who suffer. We are ourselves privileged to fulfill this role, yet are also affected in some way by each healing action we take part in. Every patient leaves an impression—a mark—and by taking what is important from those we provide care to, we may learn and grow as physicians. It may often seem that we belong to our patients—especially in a society in which we are sought out for specific skills, paid for service, and judged by both objective and subjective standards. However, our patients provide a service as well: The chance to learn from them, to improve our own abilities, and to provide better care in the future.

Reverence for Life

In addition to living a life of compassion and service, Schweitzer was known for his philosophy of the “Reverence for Life,” which he considered to be his greatest contribution to mankind. His daughter, Rhena Schweitzer Miller, is quoted as reflecting upon a conversation she had with her father one day, in which she asked him, “You have done so much for Africa. Has it given you anything in return?” He said, “Yes, nowhere else could I have found the idea of reverence for life than here.”3 

The story of how Schweitzer came upon this concept is quite interesting. In his book Out of My Life and Thought, Schweitzer describes how he made the conscious decision to reflect upon his personal values and understandings of the world. While taking a trip on the Ogowe River, he put to words the core notions of his philosophical thought. Below is a passage that describes how he came to this revelation:

“Slowly we crept upstream, laboriously navigating—it was the dry season between the sandbanks. Lost in thought I sat on the deck of the barge, struggling to find the elementary and universal concept of the ethical that I had not discovered in any philosophy. I covered sheet after sheet with disconnected sentences merely to concentrate on the problem. Two days passed. Late on the third day, at the very moment when, at sunset, we were making our way through a herd of hippopotamuses, there flashed upon my mind, unforeseen and unsought, the phrase ‘reverence for life.’ The iron door had yielded. The path in the thicket had become visible. Now I had found my way to the principle in which affirmation of the world and ethics are joined together!”4

His Legacy

We learn by looking at the life of Schweitzer that his role as a great healer was only a part of his legendary history. He contributed as a philosopher, pastor, theologian, musician, and a prominent social activist. Schweitzer served not only people who were suffering—one patient at a time—but also mankind, as he made significant attempts to improve social health as a whole. 

For example, Schweitzer put forth extensive effort to immediately end atmospheric nuclear test explosions. Through careful analysis, ongoing and convincing presentation, he showed the harmful effects of radioactive fallout on humankind and the environment, and he continued working to abolish the use of nuclear weapons completely. 

Schweitzer was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1952, although it was withheld until December 10, 1953. Because of hospital duties, he was unable to come to Oslo, Norway to claim the award until 1954. His Nobel Prize speech entitled, “The Problem of Peace,” is considered by some to be one of the greatest speeches ever given. Part of this speech extols wealthier nations to be responsible for other nations, which were not as fortunate. “What really matters is that we should all of us realize that we are guilty of inhumanity.”3 With the $33,000 prize money, he completed construction of the leprosarium at Lambaréné—a new facility considered so state-of-the-art that Schweitzer once said, “Now everyone is going to want to have leprosy!”2

Schweitzer died on September 4, 1965 and was buried at Lambaréné. He strongly supported the notion that an individual’s life and practices should match his or her beliefs. “A man’s life should be the same as his thought.” Of himself, Schweitzer confirmed, “I have made my life my argument.”2 Perhaps the greatest lesson that healers of any age can learn from Schweitzer is that we possess the potential to put our beliefs into action and that in doing so—by living in accordance with our own ideals—we may find the deepest satisfaction possible. 

From a practical standpoint, few, if any, of us may feel capable of leaving our current reality to travel halfway around the world and commit ourselves to our work and people in a way similar to Schweitzer. This great man found solace in commitment towards helping humankind. Although many may not fathom his decisions—ie, practicing in a primeval forest hospital in war-torn third world countries—he teaches us that accomplishments in medicine are subjective in their effect on society and the single physician. Further, that each of us may find true fulfillment in our medical practice and life’s work. May “everyone have his (or her) own Lambaréné.” ■

Reprinted with permission from Advice to the Healer: On the Art of Caring by Richard Colgan, New York: Springer, 2012.

Richard Colgan, MD, is the vice chair of medical student education and clinical operations, as well as a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, Department of Family and Community Medicine.


1. Colgan R. Advice to the Healer: On the Art of Caring. New York, NY: Springer, 2012. 

2. The Albert Schweitzer Fellowship. Available at: Accessed February 2014.

3. Meyer M, Berger K, eds. The Ethics of Albert Schweitzer for the Twenty-First Century: Reverence for Life. New York, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2002.

4. Schweitzer A. Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography. Lemke AB (translator).New York/Baltimore: Henry Holte and Co./Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.

Additional Readings

Brazabon J. Albert Schweitzer: Essential Writings.  New York: Maryknoll, 2005.

Schweitzer A. On the Edge of the Primeval Forest. Wasser und Urwald Z (ed) and Campion CT (translator). London/New York: A & C Black/Holt Rinehart and Winston, 1958.

Schweitzer A. My Life and Thought. Campion CT (translator). London, UK: George Allen and Unwin, 1993 and New York, NY: Henry Holt, 1948.