Albert Schweitzer Hospital centennial: Schweitzer and the nuclear threat
[Ilkka and Vappu Taipale visited Lambaréné Hospital in Gabon in July 2013, by invitation of the chair of the Lambaréné Hospital Executive Board, Lachlan Forrow. Dr. Forrow, a former executive director of IPPNW, is now Associate Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. The Taipales were deeply moved to see the museum hospital once run by one of the medical heroes of their youth, Albert Schweitzer, and refreshed their knowledge of Schweitzer’s relationship to the nuclear issue.]
By Vappu Taipale and Ilkka Taipale
He was the hero of the youth in the 50´s and 60´s, one of the great humanists of the world, a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, an opponent of nuclear bombs. His hospital, Lambaréné, celebrated its centennial July 6-7, 2013 with a high-level applied research symposium on the triple epidemic HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria.
Albert Schweitzer was born in 1875 into an Alsatian family which, for generations, had been devoted to religion, music, and education. Schweitzer entered into theological studies, obtained a doctorate in philosophy, and published The Quest of the Historical Jesus, a book on which much of his fame as a theological scholar rests. Meanwhile he continued with a distinguished musical career: he was, from his young manhood to his middle eighties, recognized as a concert organist, internationally known. Having decided to devote his early years to philosophy, theology and music, he felt a need to go to Africa as a medical missionary. Thus, in 1905 Schweitzer began the study of medicine. In 1913, having obtained his MD degree, he founded his hospital at Lambaréné in French Equatorial Africa, now Gabon.
At Lambaréné, Schweitzer was doctor and surgeon in the hospital, pastor of a congregation, administrator of a village, superintendent of buildings and grounds, writer of scholarly books, commentator on contemporary history, musician, host to countless visitors. With the funds earned from his own royalties and personal appearance fees and with those donated from all parts of the world, he expanded the hospital. The Nobel Peace Prize, with the $33,000 prize money, was used to start the leprosarium at Lambaréné.
For the youth of the world his decisions were a model, a challenge to use one´s life for a greater cause. He left his theological career in Europe to do something practical as a medical doctor, moved to a jungle, used his capacity for healing people there where nothing was available. From Africa, he followed the developments of the world. He saw two world wars and preparation for the next as threats to humanity. He wrote books and letters to the decision makers. But Schweitzer´s history is not only medical history but also a chapter in the history of the fight for nuclear disarmament.
The first time Albert Schweitzer talked of his concerns about the use of nuclear bombs was in a letter to the “Daily Herald” in London, in 1954. The second was his acceptance speech for the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize, “The Problem of Peace,” delivered in Oslo in 1954. Schweitzer even wrote a letter to the American President, Dwight Eisenhower: “In my heart I carry the hope I may somehow be able to contribute to the peace of the world. This I know has always been our deepest wish. We both share the conviction that humanity must find a way to control the weapons which now menace the very existence of life on earth. May it be given to us both to see the day when the world’s people will realize that the fate of all humanity is now at stake, and that it is urgently necessary to make the bold decisions that can deal adequately with the agonizing situation in which the world now find itself.”
In 1957, radio Oslo broadcast Schweitzer’s “Declaration of Conscience.” The declaration was transmitted by 140 other radio stations all around the world. Many broadcast services—in the East and the West—were forbidden to broadcast it by their governments. On 14 January 1958—Schweitzer’s 83rd birthday—the chemist and Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling delivered a petition to the UNO in New York, signed by Albert Schweitzer and 9,235 other scientists. The resolution urged an international agreement to stop nuclear weapons tests.
Schweitzer´s three speeches—“The renunciation of nuclear tests,” “The danger of an atomic war,” and “Negotiations at the highest level”—were published under the title “Peace or Atomic War?” and were also translated into several languages.
On 20 April 1962, Schweitzer wrote a letter to President Kennedy as “someone who has occupied himself for a long time with the problem of atomic weapons and with problem of peace.” He told Kennedy that disarmament under effective international control was the important goal and negotiations toward this end should not be “made questionable by unnecessary appeals for international verification of the discontinuance of testing.” Then he drew the attention of the president “to something that concerns you personally”—the hereditary effect of radioactivity on children.
Schweitzer´s activities were not seen positively by some important actors of power. A campaign started to unjustly label Schweitzer as a “colonialist,” a white doctor in black Africa paternalizing the black people, imposing “superior” white manners and culture on the lives of poor black Africans. Maybe something of the unfair campaign still exists in the minds of contemporaries.
Schweitzer´s philosophical concept—“reverence for life”—might be more known than his fight against nuclear bombs. But IPPNW should remember and appreciate him as a medical doctor using his medical competence to speak out against the final epidemic.
When visiting Lambaréné hospital—the 1928 building is now a museum—it is amazing how ambitious Schweitzer was. At its time, it was modern with all the timely equipment. Schweitzer was not a single doctor in a primitive health station in the bush—the romantic idea held by many—but a manager of a big hospital with many specialists and nurses, and a well functioning community. Today, unfortunately, Gabon does not provide health services to its whole, small population of 2.9 million, despite its natural resources and wealth.
It looks like Schweitzer´s legacy in nuclear issues was stronger than the medical one. At least we, IPPNW people, should know it and nurture it.
Vappu Taipale, a former co-president of IPPNW, served as Finland’s minister of health and then as minister of social affairs. Her husband, Ilkka, was a Member of the Finnish Parliament from 1971-1975 and from 2000-2007.