Albert Schweitzer by W. Eugene Smith, 1954


In 1953, German doctor Albert Schweitzer won the Nobel Peace Prize “for his altruism, reverence for life, and tireless humanitarian work which has helped making the idea of brotherhood between men and nations a living one.” Since 1913, he had been living in Lambaréné, now in Gabon (then French Equatorial Africa) and operating a hospita, Hôpital Albert Schweitzer.

The following year, journalists and photographers flocked to Lambaréné. W. Eugene Smith — the father of the photoessay — was among them. He would spend 70 days with Schweitzer for an in-depth photoessay, something the doctor did not understand the point of. When Smith tried to photograph him at work, Schweitzer grumbled, “People will think Schweitzer has picked up a shovel to show the world he works!” Smith responded: “If the story looks like that then we’ve both failed.”

Smith only got Schweitzer’s tacit approval for his presence after the doctor asked Smith to make a tiny passport photo for him for his Nobel Prize trip to Oslo. The doctor wanted it overnight but printing materials had to be delivered from Brazzaville (900 km away) which took three weeks (but still a record speed in those days). The grateful but exasperated humanitarian grumbled, “I’d never again ask a famous photographer to make a snapshot!”

Smith’s photoessay “A Man of Mercy” was later published in LIFE. A perfectionist and master of darkroom, Smith spent up to five days developing and manipulating the photos and opened that essay with a trick photo. He combined elements from two separate negatives: the silhouetted saw handle and human hand in the lower right of the frame came from a different shot. Smith’s intent was not clear: some said they were added to cover a blurry patch on the larger picture. Others said Smith wanted to add an additional flourish.)

Albert Schweitzer supervises the building of a hospital in Gabon, West Africa, 1952.

Typically this sort of manipulation would not be allowed at LIFE. But Smith developed and printed his own work, refusing to allow others to handle his film and he used his larger-than-life persona and track record to bypass the rules.

Smith’s work is one of the flattering ones 78-year old Schweitzer received. Other journalists (for instance, James Cameron) pointed out flaws in the practices and attitudes of Schweitzer and his staff. The hospital suffered from squalor, was without modern amenities and Schweitzer had little contact with the local people, although Cameron withheld the story for the great humanitarian’s sake. The American John Gunther was more blunt: he criticized Schweitzer’s patronizing attitude towards Africans, the lack of skilled Africans, and Schweitzer’s dependence on European nurses after three decades. He wrote:

Incontestably Schweitzer is a great man — one of the greatest of this or any time. He is too lofty,
too manifold to grasp easily — a “universal man” as Leonardo da Vinci and Goethe were universal men…. at times Schweitzer can be dictatorial, pedantic in a peculiarly Teutonic manner, and irascible… Schweitzer’s attitude towards the Africans is a mixture of benevolence, perplexity, irritation, hope and despair.

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