• Email
  • Print

The Schweitzer Legend

Verdict on Schweitzer: The Man behind the Legend of Lambarene

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

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 arouse so much envious malice. Mr. McKnight’s writing has the worst features of the kind of British mass-circulation journalism which formed it; cockiness, ignorance, carelessness, prurience, innuendo, and lip-service to the highest moral standards. Schweitzer, Mr. McKnight is shocked to find, falls below these standards. When Schweitzer receives him, the old man permits himself the unsanctified luxury of sitting in a “chair padded with several layers of foam rubber,” while leaving the young journalist to sit on “a hard wooden stool.” His diet also is pretty lax: he has two hen’s eggs “specially reserved” for him each day: “Thus the jungle doctor whom the world sees as a saint ensures that his strength is kept up whatever happens to anyone else.”

The old man’s depravity is in part explained by the tendencies of his early youth. He liked Wagner, a fact which when interpreted by Mr. McKnight gives us this sinister picture: “The music that later inspired the Kaiser’s and Adolf Hitler’s goose-stepping soldiers made a thunderous impact on the young man sitting alone in the stalls.” Schweitzer’s responsibility for the war was, however, even closer than this. The year 1905, in which Schweitzer gave up his academic post to study medicine was, as Mr. McKnight tellingly establishes, “nine years before Europe was brought to war by his Kaiser.” Having noted this chronological link with Hohenzollern aggression, we are not surprised to find that Schweitzer prefers “savages and cannibals” to his own family. Did he not refer, in an autobiographical work, to the “pain of parting” from Africa, although he had not used these words about leaving his wife and daughter in Europe?

If a man who turnips cries
Cry not when his father dies
‘Tis a proof that he had rather
Have a turnip than his father.

Proof enough for McKnight on Schweitzer certainly. Schweitzer’s early life was a sad business altogether. Snobbery and sex reared their ugly heads. He is entertained by Countess Melanie de Pourtales: “How cosy and titillating these aristocratic associations sound…and how hard it is to imagine them culminating in a life of abnegation in the jungle!” He goes for walks with a Miss Herrenschmidt. Mr. McKnight licks his lips: “Together we can imagine them roaming the student quarter and enjoying the piquant life of the city. Though he makes no excuse [sic] or explanation for alluding to her in an exclusive paragraph of his memoirs except to say that they ‘saw a good deal of each other,’ doubtless Schweitzer’s usual reticence about everything private in his life is reflected here.”

One could forgive the debauchery, the writer seems to feel, if the fellow wasn’t so furtive about it. Even after he went to Africa his goings-on have something to do with sex, although Mr. McKnight cannot, greatly to his disappointment, find out just what, except that the nurses are women and tend to admire Schweitzer. Some of them are a little odd, and all have come a long way. One lady’s journey, by bicycle from Abidjan to Gabon, gives Mr. McKnight an opportunity to display his Africamanship:

When the ship reached her port of destination, Mrs. Clent trundled her bicycle down the gangplank, mounted it, and rode towards the jungle. Her path to Schweitzer lay across nearly 1,000 miles of jungle, bush, scrub, wild-land, bad-land, swamp, river, tundra, forest, lake, and plain. The tribes she would pass among contained many with savage reputations. Cannabilism is not extinct, by any means. (While I was in Lambaréné, there were seven convictions for it in Sierra Leone, farther up the coast.) A few miles east of Abidjan Mrs. Clent crossed the border into Ghana. Farther in the same direction she entered Togo; then Dahomey, Nigeria and the Cameroons. Here she turned south, though by now she had parted with her map and went only in the directions given her by friendly natives. Having cycled her way across the high Cameroon and skirted tiny Spanish Guinea, she entered Gabon. The end of her journey was unbelievably in sight.

On this journey the lady was hardly in more danger of being eaten by cannibals than of freezing to death in all that “tundra.” Apart from mosquitoes and saddle-sores, the greatest risk she ran was that of being knocked down by a truck on the busy stretch of highway between Sekondi and Accra. Catty about Schweitzer though he is, Mr. McKnight has uncritically acquired the Schweitzer vision of Africa: the Africa of 1913. All references to “the natives” in Verdict on Schweitzer reflect Schweitzer’s basic assumptions, to the effect that these primitive creatures are at their best when they are most “unspoiled.” “They are no good any more,” as a Belgian hired assassin once told the present writer, “when they are polluted by the Town.”

Verdict on Schweitzer has its comic aspects but the total effect of the constant drip of feeble spite is most depressing. Take, for example, the chapter boldly entitled “The Tragedy of Madame Schweitzer.” Here the writer wrestles flabbily with meager data to get such holds on reality as these: “Schweitzer [in his autobiographical writings] deliberately avoided mentioning Héléne whenever possible. This could have been, and is believed by his admirers to have been, praiseworthy reticence…Nevertheless the rigorous skirting of Mme. Schweitzer’s role in events he was describing gives an altogether different impression from chivalry. And where she is mentioned the reader can be pardoned for wondering what special reason lay in the Doctor’s mind for choosing to reveal her.” If one starts from the assumption that Schweitzer is a thoroughly bad hat then it is clear that, whether he leaves her out or puts her in, he must have some discreditable motive, which, if one had sufficient imagination, one might even find. What the tragedy was I have been unable to discover from Mr. McKnight’s account, except that Mme. Schweitzer like other mortals was sometimes ill, may sometimes have been lonely, probably found the tropics hot, and eventually died. The culminating passage is a quotation, from Norman Cousins’s Dr. Schweitzer of Lambaréné:

January 1957. The first time I saw Mme. Schweitzer I could see she was not well. The blue veins stood out in her forehead and seemed stark against the pure whiteness of her skin…When she spoke it was with considerable effort. Her breathing was labored…Once I saw Mme. Schweitzer start out across the compound, her weight bent forward on her stick and her whole being struggling for breath. I rushed to her side and took her arm. She looked up at me, somewhat puzzled, as though I did not know the rules of the game at Lambaréné.

What a brute Schweitzer must have been—the whole context of this chapter in McKnight’s book implies—to reduce his wife to such a condition! The message loses some of its impact when one realizes, by comparing dates, that this description is of Mme. Schweitzer a few months before her death, which took place in Zurich at the age of seventy-five.

It is discouraging that the Schweitzer legend still lingers on; it is no less discouraging that it can now be debunked in this particular way—a way that displays the maximum meanness towards the man, while leaving intact that dangerous illusion: the pasteboard Africa which he and his admirers think he is living in.

  • Email
  • Print