Albert Schweitzer was born January 14, 1875 in Kaysersberg, Germany (modern day France) to a modest family. He was able to study throughout his childhood years and he always had his material needs met. As he grew older, he made plans to study at the university level. He studied theology and philosophy. He became a preacher, an occupation of “an inner necessity. The opportunity to speak every Sunday to a congregation about the essential questions of life seemed to [him] wonderful” (Schweitzer 25). While fulfilling the post of vicar of the Church of St. Nicholai in Strasbourg, Schweitzer continued his study of music, having played the piano since age five and the organ from age eight. Working with fellow ministers in the church provided him with ample time to further his musical knowledge. He became an expert scholar on Johann Sebastian Bach, writing a biography and studying the imagery used in Bach’s religious compositions. In addition to his musical scholarship, Schweitzer also became prominent for his restoration, construction and study of pipe organs.
The circumstances he observed while in his studies led him to ponder about the personal well-being he had enjoyed throughout his life.
“It struck me as inconceivable that I should be allowed to lead such a happy life while I saw so many people around me struggling with sorrow and suffering. Even at school I had felt stirred whenever I caught a glimpse of the miserable home surroundings of some of my classmates and compare them with the ideal conditions in which we children…lived” (Schweitzer 82).
He saw a need and desperately pondered for ways to fill it. One summer morning in 1896, he woke up with a thought in his mind. “I must not accept this happiness as a matter of course, but must give something in return…” He decided that he could justify devoting himself to study until he reached the age of thirty, after which he would consecrate himself to directly serving humanity. Being a Christian believer, he mentioned that he “had already tried many times to find the meaning that lay hidden in the saying of Jesus! “Whosoever would save his life shall lose it, and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the Gospels shall save it.” He then realized that the losing of his life should be in direct service to others. Although he knew not what that future service would consist of, Schweitzer found the direction he needed. “I could now add outward to inward happiness” (Schweitzer 82).
Schweitzer had first thought of activities in Europe such as taking charge of and educating abandoned or neglected children or possibly devoting himself to discharged convicts. As a socially active student, he visited a certain number of poor families that were assigned to him by a group at school. Along with his classmates, the young Schweitzer would solicit donations to help these families. Depending so much on others to care for the poor and needy, Schweitzer realized that he wanted “an absolutely personal and independent activity” to which he could dedicate himself (Schweitzer 85). In the fall of 1904, he read an article in a magazine in the Paris Missionary Society about needed services in the Congo mission. The writer of the article “expressed the hope that his appeal would bring some of those ‘on whom the Master’s eyes already rested’ to a decision to offer themselves for this urgent work.” At that moment, Schweitzer thought to himself, “My search [is] over” (Schweitzer 86). He would return to schooling in order to become a physician and build a clinic in Africa.
His decision was received with ridicule and reproach. Despite the lack of support from his friends and relatives, Schweitzer knew what he had to do. “The reasons that made me determined to enter into the service I had chosen as a doctor weighed so heavily that other considerations were as dust in the balance and counted for nothing” (Schweitzer 91).
The day was March 26, 1913. Schweitzer and Helen, his wife of nine months, left for Lambaréné in French Equatorial Africa (present day nation of Gabon). Even with a “very hearty welcome,” Dr. Schweitzer was taken aback upon arrival when he realized the severity of the situation along the Ogowe river. He stated, “during the very first weeks I realized that the physical misery among the Africans was not less but much greater than I had expected. How glad I was that in defiance of all objections, I had carried out my plan of going there as a doctor!” (Schweitzer 138). He had established his clinic and was serving humanity directly.
“Only a person who finds value in any kind of activity and who gives of himself with a full sense of service has the right to choose an exceptional task instead of following the common path. Only a person who feels his preference to be a matter of course, not something out of the ordinary, and who has no thought of heroism but only of a duty undertaking was sober enthusiasm, is capable of becoming the sort of spiritual pioneer the world needs.”
Dr. Schweitzer felt that he discovered his way of serving humanity by God-given inspiration. He was doing it out of a sense of duty, not for the publicity or fame. His efforts were recognized as he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 1952.
The doctor traveled between Europe and Lambaréné a total of thirteen times between 1913 and 1959. “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 to seventy buildings which by the early 1960’s could take care of over 500 patients in residence at any one time” (Nobelprize.org). It was during the summer of 1958 that Schweitzer invited a young American TV and movie star to visit him in Africa. A meeting that would change today’s students lives over half a century later.
Hugh O’Brian was 33 years old and had already made a name for himself as an actor portraying the legendary lawman Wyatt Earp on television and appearing in numerous films when a cable arrived from French Equatorial Africa. O’Brian had long admired the German doctor-missionary-theologian-musician. “I’d read so much about him,” O’Brian reflects. “He was a great humanitarian who could have done anything he wanted in the world, and there he was in the middle of Africa taking care of people.” Within two weeks O’Brian was on his way, by commercial airliner, bush plane and canoe, to the famed hospital that Schweitzer had founded in 1913 on the banks of the Ogowe River in Lambaréné (HOBY.org).
There he was met by a very old man with a huge, white walrus mustache, wearing white pants, shirt and pith helmet. The actor spent nine days at the clinic complex where Schweitzer, then 83, and volunteer doctors and nurses, working without electricity or running water, cared for patients including many with leprosy. O’Brian spent his days assisting the volunteers in the hospital and his nights with Dr. Schweitzer discussing world events and politics.
Dr. Schweitzer told O’Brian that he felt “The most important thing in education is to teach young people to think for themselves.” After an inspiring nine days, O’Brian prepared to return to America. Before saying goodbye, Dr. Schweitzer took O’Brian’s hand and asked, “Hugh, what are you going to do with this?” It was these words combined with his unforgettable visit that compelled O’Brian to form Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership (HOBY). Two weeks after returning from his 1958 visit to Africa, O’Brian put together a prototype seminar for young leaders (HOBY.org).
The seminar was established to provide the attendees with new ideas and to gain insight into their personal leadership skills and styles. Speakers and panelists from the community are invited to share their thoughts and passions about what they do as a career or service to others. Each site has the opportunity to bring in visitors they have selected to add to their seminar.
For the first ten years after O’Brian’s return from Lambaréné, the reach of the seminar was limited to high school sophomores near Los Angeles, California. In 1968, the vision of the program grew to a national and international youth leadership seminar. Desiring to include more students nationwide, three- and four-day HOBY Leadership Seminars were instituted in 1977, with Delaware, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Rhode Island being the first to conduct HOBY Leadership Seminars. Utah’s first HOBY seminar was held in 1981 and a year later, there were seminars in all 50 United States. The results of the seminar have even reached international interest in Canada, Mexico, Israel, China, Taiwan, Korea, Bolivia and Argentina, which led to the expanded eight-day global leadership seminar called the World Leadership Congress (WLC) held annually.
Upon the good doctor’s death September 4, 1965, nine months after his 90th birthday, O’Brian dedicated HOBY and its success to:
“Dr. Albert Schweitzer, whose reverence for life set me on a quest to translate his thoughts into action. His words, ‘I am very old and have little time left, so it’s important that you listen to what I have to say now as long as this candle burns,’ provided me with inspiration. His example gave me the courage to work to pass his light to young people following me in his path. When they have passed the flame to their sons and daughters, I will believe I have repaid the good doctor’s kindness and know he is smiling on my efforts” (HOBY.org).
Written by Chad Saunders, 2013
“Albert Schweitzer – Biography“. Nobelprize.org.
HOBY.org. Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership. Web.
New Oxford American Dictionary. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
Schweitzer, A. Out of My Life and Thought. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1933.
Below is a documentary about Dr. Schweitzer, his life and work (1h 20m).