The Primeval Forest, and: Out of My Life and Thought (review)
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Bulletin of the History of Medicine 74.2 (2000) 394-396

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Book Review

The Primeval Forest

Out of My Life and Thought

Albert Schweitzer. The Primeval Forest. Originally published in 1931. Foreword by William H. Foege. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, in association with the Albert Schweitzer Institute for the Humanities, 1998. 239 pp. $15.95 (paperbound).

Albert Schweitzer. Out of My Life and Thought. Originally published in 1933. Translated by Antje Bultmann Lemke. Foreword by President Jimmy Carter. Preface By Rhena Schweitzer Miller and Antje Multmann Lemke. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, in association with the Albert Schweitzer Institute for the Humanities, 1998. xvi + 272 pp. Ill. $15.95 (paperbound).

In an old "Peanuts" cartoon, Linus is shown running around the house shooting an imaginary gun, having just seen a Western movie. Lucy finds this tiresome, and complains to Charlie Brown that every time Linus sees a movie, he spends the following week acting like the characters. Charlie Brown asks, "Why don't you take him to a movie about Albert Schweitzer?" One can well imagine Linus going around the house for a week pretending to produce learned biblical scholarship, play Bach on the organ, and bring the benefits of modern medicine to the less [End Page 394] fortunate. But by the time of the cartoon, this image of Schweitzer--as the very paradigm of an admirable person--had already begun to be challenged. Some, like the British journalist James Cameron, had begun to argue that there were good reasons why young people should not emulate Schweitzer. According to this revision, Schweitzer was at best paternalistic toward the Africans he treated, and at worst a colonialist, an incarnation of the racism central to Western modernity.

These editions of Schweitzer's autobiographical writings, written while he was in Africa, are part of an entire library of reissues of his work. They contain new, and mainly laudatory, forewords and prefaces (though the one for Out of My Life and Thought by Jimmy Carter is so perfunctory it may set a new standard). The volumes come at a time when scholarly interest in the relationship between medicine and colonialism is high. The Primeval Forest, in particular, is essential reading for anyone interested in that relationship, though it is far richer as a document of colonial attitudes than of medical history per se. Out of My Life and Thought relates how Schweitzer, already a renowned organist, as well as a biblical and musical scholar, decided to dedicate himself to healing the sick in Africa. Schweitzer, perhaps with some relish, conveys the shock of his acquaintances, but does not really make his motivation clear. He presents it almost as if it were the only logical outcome of his Christian convictions, though he faintly acknowledges that there was plenty of good work to be done in Europe. The Primeval Forest, in any event, is extremely revealing about his attitudes once he arrived in Africa.

Schweitzer set up a small hospital in Gabon, where he worked with his wife (a nurse) and an African assistant treating the illnesses endemic in the region. His writings provide a modest amount of detail about his medical practices, such as descriptions of the gratitude of cured hernia sufferers, and his exasperation with his patients' failure to understand proper medical compliance, such as dosages of prescribed medicines. He was not a formal part of either a colonial government or a larger missionary enterprise, though he did preach. Like many missionaries, he hoped that the efficacy of Western medicine would produce a wider victory for Western ways.

Though Schweitzer's humanitarianism was undoubtedly paternalistic, he was a critic of colonialism as well as a product of it. To his credit, he appreciated far more than many of his contemporaries the ways in which Western intrusions were a cause of ill health in Africa. He insisted that any medical benefits bestowed in the colonial context were better thought of as atonement for the violence Europe had done than as pure benevolence. But this criticism of his own...