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Albert Schweitzer Papers

An inventory of his papers at Syracuse University

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Biographical History

Albert Schweitzer (January 14, 1875-September 4, 1965), German theologian, philosopher, musician, musicologist, doctor, surgeon, and medical missionary, was born in Kaysersberg, Alsace (French territory then occupied by Germany), the son of a liberal Lutheran minister, Louis Schweitzer, and Adele (Schillinger) Schweitzer. He began music lessons at age five, went on to study theology and philosophy at Strasbourg University and, briefly, philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1902 he became a lecturer in the faculty of theology at Strasbourg University, and in the following year principal of the Theological College of St. Thomas.

Even at this young age, Schweitzer was well-known throughout Europe for his achievements in music and theology. He was an exceptional performer and critic of Bach as well as an influential organ-builder whose published works were to change the pattern of organ restoration and installation. In theology and philosophy, his unorthodox ideas about the need for reason and truth within Christian dogma were earning him controversy and praise. The publication in 1906 (1910 in English) of his The Quest of the Historical Jesus, in which Schweitzer took a new look at the Synoptic gospels and tried to understand exactly what Jesus really believed, was a landmark in Christian theology.

In 1896, despite a sucessful scholastic career, Schweitzer decided that he could not live a life purely devoted to academia. "I decided that I would make my life my argument," he said, intending to act out his beliefs rather than just preach them. At the age of thirty he returned to Strasbourg University to study medicine and in 1913 he became a fully qualified doctor, with a specialization in tropical diseases. He began actively to raise funds for the establishment of a hospital in equatorial Africa. Although his unorthodox theology was received by most mission societies with suspicion and disapproval, the Paris Missionary Society at last agreed to sponsor his venture and gave him land on which to build his hospital. This he did, with the help of his wife, Hélène Bresslau, who had qualified as a nurse to help with his mission.

The Schweitzers set up their hospital in Lambaréné, a fiercely tropical area of French equatorial Africa. Schweitzer's unorthodox medical methods (he ran Lambaréné like a typical African village) were frequently criticized but Schweitzer believed that blending African culture with his own techniques would address the needs of the population better than the imposition of a purely Western style upon them. The affection and trust he inspired in those who came to him for treatment and the success of his hospital over the years would seem to confirm this view. The villagers christened him "Oganga," meaning "the fetishman," a term of respect. By the time of his death, Lambaréné had about seventy buildings and attracted dedicated and talented medical staff from around the world.

At the outbreak of World War I he and his wife, both German citizens, were palced under house arrest and eventually taken to an internment camp in France, where they stayed until the end of the war. In 1924 he returned to Lambaréné, rebuilt the hospital on a new site, and spent the rest of his life devoted to its development, traveling regularly to Europe to give concerts to raise funds. Hélène's health suffered after her experience in the internment camp and she remained in Europe, apart from the occasional visit, but their daughter Rhena trained as a laboratory technican so she could work alongside her father.

Prior to the outbreak of World War II, Schweitzer continued to visit and lecture in Germany until the increased power of the Nazis made it no longer safe. The war itself drove Lambaréné to the brink of closure, but assistance from the Unitarian Service Committee in America enabled it to recover.

Schweitzer's ethical system, which he termed Reverence for Life, centered on a belief that everything on earth is equally sacred. "Man's ethics," he said, "must not end with man, but should extend to the universe." In his view, it is up to mankind to invest living with moral value, since nature and the universe are neutral. Schweitzer elaborated this theory in his writings and exemplified it in his own life, refusing to kill anything, even insects, unless it was absolutely essential. (Part of the responsibility of this approach, he knew, was the need to accept that in some situations killing is necessary.)

In 1952 Schweitzer was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the money from which he put towards building a leper colony near the hospital. In 1957 Hélène died, and thereafter he remained at Lambaréné. He became increasingly outspoken on the issue of nuclear weapons, joining with some of the greatest intellects in the world to discuss and denounce their proliferation. In 1958 he made three radio appeals from Oslo entitled "Peace or Atomic War?," and until the end of his life he welcomed visiting journalists or politicians who wished to discuss this issue with him.

He died, peacefully, in 1965, and was buried alongside his wife at Lambaréné.

(Biographical statement adapted from World Authors 1900-1950 (1996) Copyright (c) by The H. W. Wilson Company)

Scope and Contents of the Collection

Assembled from a variety of sources, the Albert Schweitzer Papers spans the years 1896 to 1965 and comprises Correspondence, Writings and Memorabilia of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning humanitarian doctor (1875-1965). Of Alsatian background, Schweitzer spoke both French and German, and his notebooks and family correspondence move freely, at times randomly, between the two. In 1913 Albert Schweitzer relinquished a promising career as a theologian and musician to travel to French Equatorial Africa where he established a hospital at Lambaréné on the Ogowe River. Documenting Schweitzer's realization of his own philosophy of "reverence for life," the collection offers an intimate look at the thoughts and daily life of one of the most revered men of the twentieth century.

Arranged alphabetically, the Correspondence/subject files (boxes 1-5) consists primarily of original letters which Schweitzer wrote to his wife Hélène (née Bresslau), his daughter Rhena, and his biographer and friend Erica Anderson. Other correspondents include Emory Ross, Director of the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship, biographer Hermann Hagedorn, and John F. Kennedy, to whom there is a draft of a Schweitzer letter.

Writings (boxes 6-21) includes a working copy with notes for revisions of the book More from the Primeval Forest; essays, including drafts for his three radio messages on the dangers of nuclear proliferation; 127 notebooks covering the years 1918 to 1965; program notes for an organ concert; thoughts on nuclear weapons testing; the script for the documentary film "Albert Schweitzer;" as well as a short story, speeches and sermons.

Constituting the bulk of the Writings and arranged chronologically, the notebooks (boxes 7-19) "make up the core of what might be generally considered Albert Schweitzer's personal journal." (Ursula Berkling "The Albert Schweitzer Papers at Syracuse University", Syracuse University Library Associates Courier, vol.XXI, no.2, Fall 1986, p.27) They embrace a wide variety of topics, including official hospital records and accounts of daily life at Lambaréné, as well as travel diaries of Schweitzer's many concert and/or lecture tours to Europe and the United States. The notebooks also contain observations about people and world events; explorations of ideas in philosophy, theology, linguistics and music; records of and excerpts from Schweitzer's correspondence; financial and personnel records; construction hints; poems; recipes; and many other items indicating a mind that seems to have been interested in everything. Together with the dates and Schweitzer-provided titles for most notebooks, a partial description of their contents is listed.

A watercolor painting by Lambaréné nurse Gloria Coolidge; clippings; photographs, some signed by either Schweitzer or photographer Erica Anderson; a book on harmony and a pamphlet about French missionary work in Africa, both inscribed by Albert Schweitzer to his daughter; two copies of an autograph typescript essay, "Les Deux Frères," by Nikos Kazantzakis; and some early documents from Schweitzer's days as a student at the University of Strassburg constitute Memorabilia (box 22 and oversize package 1). Also included is a mahogany box, possibly made at Lambaréné, which is inscribed "avec mes bonnes pensées Albert Schweitzer."

Original Schweitzer letters to Raymond P. Currier, Hermann Hagedorn, and Emory Ross were relocated to this collection from the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship Records, as were original Schweitzer letters to Clarence F. Avery from the Albert Schweitzer Center Records.


Access Restrictions:

The majority of our archival and manuscript collections are housed offsite and require advanced notice for retrieval. Researchers are encouraged to contact us in advance concerning the collection material they wish to access for their research.

Use Restrictions:

Written permission must be obtained from SCRC and all relevant rights holders before publishing quotations, excerpts or images from any materials in this collection.

Related Material

The library also holds the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship Records (one series of which is the Albert Schweitzer Center Records). Other Albert Schweitzer-related material at Special Collections Research Center may be found among the papers of Rudolf Bultmann, Edwin T. Dahlberg, Hermann Hagedorn, and Charles R. Joy. See also the Johanna Reitzer Collection on Albert Schweitzer.

Subject Headings


Anderson, Erica.
Bresslau, Helene, 1879-1957.
Bultmann, Rudolf Karl, 1884-1976.
Schweitzer Miller, Rhena.
Schweitzer, Albert, 1875-1965.


Missionaries, Medical.
Missions -- Gabon.
Missions, Medical -- Gabon.


Gabon -- Description and travel.
Lambaréné (Moyen-Ogooué, Gabon)

Genres and Forms




Administrative Information

Preferred Citation

Preferred citation for this material is as follows:

Albert Schweitzer Papers,
Special Collections Research Center,
Syracuse University Libraries

Acquisition Information

Purchased, in part, by Library Associates from Rhena Schweitzer Miller.

The bulk of the notebooks and the correspondence with both Hélène Schweitzer and Rhena Schweitzer were purchased from Rhena Schweitzer Miller with funds provided by Syracuse University Library Associates. Additional letters and notebooks, Albert Schweitzer's early papers, and the Nikos Kazantzakis manuscripts are the gift of Rhena Schweitzer Miller.

Copies of Schweitzer's letters to Rudolf Bultmann, an original letter to Hauptverband Baumwollindustrie Frankfurt, a map of Lambaréné, and an Erica Anderson portrait of Albert Schweitzer are the gift of Antje Bultmann Lemke.

A letter to Mrs. Otto A. Pokorny and an autograph portrait of Albert Schwietzer are the gift of Mrs. Carl H. Grathwol.

Letters to Irving Townsend, Columbia Records gift of Elizabeth Nestor, 2009.

The William P. Tolley Endowed Library Fund supported the purchase of concert program notes and a printed autograph portrait of Albert Schweitzer.

The mahogany box bearing Schweitzer's inscription is the gift of Kimberlee T. Knauf.

Table of Contents

Correspondence/subject files