This brief autobiography, written when Schweitzer was mid-50's, summarizes his life and thought up to 1931. He presents illustrative factoids and incidents from his childhood and student years, then briskly covers his development as a minister, philosopher, biblical scholar, musician, and musicologist, all before he reaches Chapter 9 (p. 102), which is entitled, "I Resolve to Become a Jungle Doctor." He greatly enjoyed his life as a scholar, yet was plagued by "the thought that I must not accept this happiness as a matter of course, but must give something in return for it." (p. 103)

He was particularly struck by the fact that so many people in the world were "denied that happiness by their material circumstances or their health." At around this time (1904), Schweitzer came across a publication of the Paris Missionary Society, which described the needs of their Congo mission. This article changed his life. In 1905, at the age of 30, he enrolled in medical school at the University of Strasburg. (Thus, Schweitzer became a forerunner of today's nontraditional applicants who leave other promising careers to enter medicine.)

Schweitzer and his wife began their work at Lambaréné in Gabon, West Africa, in 1913. As a result of the Great War in late 1917, they were sent back to France and detained as enemy aliens until mid-1918. They returned to Lambaréné and rebuilt the hospital in 1924. Between then and 1931 when Out of My Life and Thought was written, Schweitzer devoted most of his time (as he would for the rest of his life) to doctoring at his hospital in Gabon.

This memoir also includes brief intellectual asides describing many of Schweitzer's famous works, such as The Quest of the Historical Jesus (1906), J. S. Bach (1908), On the Edge of the Primeval Forest (1920), Philosophy of Civilization (1923), and The Mysticism of Paul the Apostle (1930).


When I was young, Albert Schweitzer was one of the most famous persons on earth, renowned as a scholar, musician, philosopher, and the embodiment of Christian (or simply human) virtue. As a prospective physician, I esteemed Schweitzer as a role model for a life of devoted service. He was truly astonishing.

Since his death in 1965, Schweitzer's reputation has fallen on hard times. While his works of biblical criticism, philosophy, and musicology remain significant contributions in their respective fields, his public persona as a medical saint has taken a nose-dive. Nowadays, the "official" view is that Schweitzer's decades of work in Africa are tainted because he was a paternalistic racist who fought for years against modernization of his dirty, out-of-date hospital. In fact, I once spoke with a distinguished American physician who dismissed Albert Schweitzer as "an outright fraud" who "didn't even believe in germs."

Such comments reflect the cynicism of our age and our reflexive need to smash idols. They also reflect our tendency to democratize character traits to the extent that any personal flaw we happen to identify somehow justifies our trashing the person's character as a whole and invalidating all his good works. In fact, Schweitzer's attitude toward the African colonies was somewhat enlightened for his era (see page 222), even if it was strongly paternalistic.

Likewise, his paternalistic style of medical practice owed much more to the culture of medicine in early 20th century Europe than it did to his imputed racism. Late in his career, it is true that Schweitzer resisted modernization and didn't keep his hospital as cleanly as his critics would have liked, but this resistance was based largely on his philosophy of "reverence for life," which had apparently led him, insofar as was possible, to respect even the lives of insects and bacteria.

Out of My Life and Thought is worth reading for several reasons. First, the narrative itself is lively. Mythologizing aside, Schweitzer was a skillful writer who knew how to capture his reader with fascinating and provocative detail. Second, if you set aside the cynicism de jour for a few hours, Schweitzer's story is still inspiring. This should be particularly the case for medical students and physicians. Finally, the thumbnail summaries of some of his philosophical and theological positions are interesting in themselves, especially the sketch of "reverence for life," an attitude more strongly influenced by Eastern mysticism than by Schweitzer's profound but unorthodox Christianity.


The alternate source has a Foreword by Jimmy Carter and a Preface by Rhena Schweitzer Miller.


Henry Holt

Place Published

New York



Page Count