The Schweitzer Legend

Verdict on Schweitzer: The Man behind the Legend of Lambarene

by Gerald McKnight
John Day, 256 pp., $4.95

Albert Schweitzer
Albert Schweitzer; drawing by David Levine

It is more than fifty years since Albert Schweitzer went to Lambaréné, in what is now Gabon, to practice medicine and found a hospital. In that time he has become a symbol, to a large white public, of altruism, self-sacrifice, and dedication to the Negro. To educated Africans and Afro-Americans on the other hand—with a few exceptions—he represents the most irritating, if not the most noxious, aspects of the white man in Africa: paternalism, condescension, resistance to change. A by no means revolutionary African thinker, Dr. Davidson Nicol, Principal of Fourah Bay College, Sierra Leone, was applauded by a large student audience in Ghana some months ago when he subjected Schweitzer’s writings about Africa to severe criticism, pointing out in particular that in his famous “respect for life” Schweitzer tends to equate African Negroes with insects as two inferior forms of life which must none the less be “respected,” since all life is sacred. It is not likely that Schweitzer would have been moved by this criticism. He would readily concur with the view of a British nineteenth-century administrator: “the educated African, the curse of the West Coast.” The Africans in whom he is interested are the “simple” ones—the more primitive the better—and for their sakes he keeps his hospital also “simple,” that is to say primitive. The photographs, which are the best part of Verdict on Schweitzer, show this clearly. They show Dr. Schweitzer and his helpers wearing solar topees—long since abandoned by everybody else, except some of that class of Africans known as “migrant madmen”—and fondling pelicans in the middle of a chaotic and artificially-preserved medical slum. There are several—though far from enough—modern hospitals in Africa, and it seems clear that Schweitzer’s fame has brought him enough financial support to turn Lambaréné into such a hospital. He keeps it as it is because he believes that “simple people” would not come to a modern hospital: an opinion disproved by the experience of the modern hospitals of Africa. When he first came to Lambaréné in 1913, Schweitzer and his wife were running real risks, enduring real hardships, and making a real contribution to the health and welfare of those among whom they chose to live. Today, by refusing to admit that anything has changed, this proud and obstinate old man has become a tragic anachronism.

This is the story that any doctor who has visited Lambaréné tells his friends; it is therefore widely known throughout Africa and in the medical world generally. Mr. McKnight now tells it to the general public. So far, so good. But having shattered the Legend of Lambaréné—no difficult task, since the camera does most of it—he pursues the Man with a dull, pertinacious hostility, an obsessive anxiety to find discreditable interpretations of the most innocuous biographical data, which can only make one reflect how much greatness must still smoulder, even in the wreck of Schweitzer, to…

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