Albert Schweitzer's Visit to America

Albert Schweitzer made only a single trip to the United States.  It was during the summer of 1949, when America was enjoying mounting prosperity, Europe was struggling to recover from the devastation of World War II, and Africa was about to shed its colonial past.  He came to speak in Aspen, Colorado, at a festival celebrating the bicentennial of Goethe's birth, to earn funds for a leprosy clinic at Lambarene, and to meet with American drug manufacturers about modern leprosy treatments.  Acclaimed everywhere he went and invited to speak at countless dinners and assemblies, Schweitzer stuck to his original schedule, traveling relentlessly and returning to Europe after only 25 days.

The following summary was gathered from his writings and from contemporary newspaper and magazine accounts.  It is incomplete; his activities are well known on some days and almost unknown on others.  If you can add anything to this account, please contact

Before The Visit
Tuesday, June 28, 1949
Wednesday, June 29, 1949
Thursday, June 30, 1949
Friday, July 1, 1949
Saturday, July 2, 1949
Sunday, July 3, 1949
Monday, July 4, 1949  (Independence Day)
Tuesday, July 5, 1949
Wednesday, July 6, 1949
Thursday, July 7, 1949
Friday, July 8, 1949
Saturday, July 9, 1949
Sunday, July 10, 1949
Monday, July 11, 1949
Tuesday, July 12, 1949
Wednesday, July 13, 1949
Thursday, July 14, 1949
Friday, July 15, 1949
Saturday, July 16, 1949
Sunday, July 17, 1949
Monday, July 18, 1949
Tuesday, July 19, 1949
Wednesday, July 20, 1949
Thursday, July 21, 1949
Friday, July 22, 1949
After the Visit

Before The Visit

It seems an odd circumstance.  World War II was only a few years in the past when Robert Hutchins, Chancellor of the University of Chicago, decided to hold a convocation to celebrate the bicentennial of the birth of a German, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  It would be twenty days of speeches about Goethe's work, and of symphonic music heavily emphasizing another German, Johann Sebastian Bach, located in the then-obscure mountain town of Aspen, a thousand miles from the nearest center of culture.  As Hutchins himself would say half-jokingly during the festival, 99 percent of Americans had never heard of Goethe.  Certainly the most to hope for would be a small, scholarly event for intellectuals, perhaps covered by a few high-brow journals and magazines.  But that was not to be.  Instead it became a huge event, bringing perhaps 2,000 people--twice Aspen's permanent population--including leading celebrities from the arts and scholarship, and covered at least in part by almost every national publication.  Much of this success can be attributed to the prestige of one speaker: Albert Schweitzer, doctor, theologian, missionary, organist, and Goethe scholar.

By 1949, Albert Schweitzer was a well-known and -loved figure.  His lectures, organ playing and theological writings had made him famous in Europe even before his first mission to Africa in 1913.  His reputation grew over the following years, despite--or possibly due to--his long sojourns out of the spotlight at his hospital in Lambarene.  Having arrived in Europe from Africa in February 1939, he recognized that world war was imminent and immediately returned to Lambarene.  He spent the war there, often under house arrest but at least not interned as an enemy alien as he had been during the first World War.  Finally, in September of 1948, he returned to Europe, visiting his wife Helene in Konigsfeld and also meeting his four grandchildren for the first time.  He was 73 years old, and much of his time was spent in his home in Gunsbach, writing and resting.

Upon his arrival in Gunsbach, he found at least six invitations to address Goethe bicentennial festivals.  But he turned them down, preferring his work and rest.  When Dr. Hutchin's invitation to speak in Aspen arrived, it presented a stronger temptation.  Hutchin offered an honorarium of 2,000,000 francs (about $6,100) for a speech at the Goethe festival and another to the University of Chicago (where Schweitzer would be awarded an honorary doctorate).  In 1949, that amount of money would build a fine leprosy clinic in Lambarene.  His opportunities for earning a similar sum in war-ravaged Europe were nil.  After six days of thought, Schweitzer accepted the invitation.

Schweitzer had long been a Goethe devotee, having lectured on his indebtedness to Goethe after receiving the City of Frankfort's Goethe Prize in 1928.  But the lectures in America required additional research and preparation.  Schweitzer spent months preparing his speeches, finally finishing the text one and half hours before his ship arrived in America.

Tuesday, June 28, 1949  Arrival in America

Schweitzer had refused previous invitations to come to America (although Helene had previously given lectures there), largely, his friends said, because of what he had heard about US publicity and "ballyhoo methods".  When his ship, the Holland America liner Nieuw Amsterdam, docked in Hoboken, New Jersey, he got his first taste of it.  When he and Helene debarked, they were met by more than forty photographers and as many reporters.  By all accounts, they enjoyed the experience.  Albert was variously described as "in high good humor" and "merry, vigorous and full of Gallic wit", with a "wrinkled face beneath a shock of graying hair", and a "scraggly walrus moustache sprouted beneath his big nose"; he was dressed "in the style of fifty years ago".  Helene, herself over seventy years old, had "her white hair bound about her small head and her face as fresh and unlined as a baby's".  Helene, as was her custom, stayed in the background while Albert answered questions for more than a hour.

Schweitzer noted that he was grateful to Americans for attempting to keep his hospital going during the war, and that "after all America has done for me, I'm happy to see America."   The reporters wanted to know how he could renounce civilization and sacrifice his life in the jungle.  "It is not renouncing anything," he said, a twinkle in his eyes. "When you are doing some good, you are not making a sacrifice.  There was a great need for a doctor in that part of Africa."   He indicated that he was anxious to return to Africa to organize a campaign against leprosy, using the latest American discoveries in the control of the disease.

When asked whether he had an answer for the atom bomb, or the world's troubles in general, he answered, "No, he who lives in Africa can't speak about the outer world."  When the reporters asked about what sort of positive faith can oppose communism in Africa he said: "The best thing to oppose communism is non-communism.  Give all the liberty possible, material, spiritual."  But still, "one who comes out of solitude into the world can give no message to the world--just as those who come to us can give us no message."

The Schweitzers were met at the dock by Dr. Emory Ross, secretary of the Africa Committee of the Foreign Missions Conference of North America and treasurer of the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship.  Albert was impressed by the lack of control at the port of entry: "The packing and listing [in European countries]," he would later say, "Ooh-la-la! When I come here, with so many things, all they ask is do I have any gifts.  That's all they need to know!"

Wednesday, June 29, 1949  In New York City

Albert and Helene apparently stayed in New York City for four nights, taking all their meals at Dr. Ross' home at 156 Fifth Avenue.  Albert's celebrity status continued, as he would later note: "When I arrived in New York, and all those reporters were let loose on me, I felt like a virgin thrown to the lions in the arena.  In the apartment where I was staying, one day a piano tuner came in and when he thought I was not looking he was taking photographs."

Thursday, June 30, 1949  In New York City

Schweitzer is described as "resting" during this period in preparation for his journey to Aspen.  In fact, as he wrote Lotte Gerhold-Schall, a colleague and assistant, "New York was lovely but tiring.  I had to receive or pay visits all day long.  My friend Ross ... kept inviting five or six people to every lunch and dinner.  This meant conversing at the table.  It is hard to endure all this until July 22, the day I sail back to Europe.  And I won't even have peace and quiet on the boat because the other passengers keep making demands on me."

Friday, July 1, 1949  In New York City/Enroute to Colorado

On this day Schweitzer wrote his childhood friend and current tailor, Jean Baptiste Kempf, that as he was departing for America the French customs agents noted that he had two suits, and that they appeared new and therefore required payment of duty.  Schweitzer refused, saying they were old suits.  Higher and higher-ranking customs officers questioned him, until finally one asked who the tailor was who could turn old suits into new.  "Sir," Schweitzer replied, "he is Jean Baptiste Kempf in Gunsbach."  As it turned out, the officer knew of Kempf as a master tailor, and allowed Schweitzer and his belongings on board, saying "Have a good time in America."  Given this incident, one wonders what Schweitzer thought of having been described as being dressed "in the fashion of fifty years ago."

Saturday, July 2, 1949  Enroute to Colorado

Albert was on a train from New York to Denver, a fifty-hour journey. As always on during Albert's visit in America, his wife Helene accompanied him.

Sunday, July 3, 1949  Enroute to Colorado

He wrote in a letter to Mathilde Kottmann, a longtime nurse at Lambarene now temporarily in Bordeaux, "For the past hour
we've been traveling through a plain filled with grain and tobacco[?].  Nothing but isolated farms.  The houses look strangely small.  We'll be in Chicago in another three hours, with a one-hour stopover.  There E. [Edith] Lenel will be coming to the train.  I hope to be back in Gunsbach on July 30.  I believe I did the right thing in agreeing to give this speech and coming to America."

Later that day, after the Chicago stopover, he would write in another letter that "For ten hours now we have been rolling at sixty-five miles an hour, crossing an immense plain in wonderful weather.  It is enchanting."

It may have been this day that Schweitzer referred to in a later anecdote as told by Charles Joy: "In the summer of 1949, when Schweitzer was traveling across the America prairies, he was told the story of the airlift that had carried food to the snowbound animals the preceding winter.  'Ah,' he said, 'what a magnificent feat!  Vive l'Amerique!'  Later, in Europe, Albert Schweitzer told me he believed there was more reverence for life in America than anywhere else in the world."

Monday, July 4, 1949  (Independence Day)  Arrival in Aspen

Albert Schweitzer arrived in Aspen on Monday evening, having been driven from the train station in Denver.  Earlier in the day, a forty minute mountain thunderstorm had all but drown out the Minnesota Symphony's concert in the tent amphitheater (which cost over $54,000, a vast sum in those days) where the festival's lecture and concerts were given; they finally had to stop when the "presumably leak-proof tent began to sag at the top with great blisters loaded with water.  Soon the water began to pour down through the canvas, forming big puddles."

Albert and Helene stayed in a house on Walter Paepcke's estate in Aspen. Paepcke was the president of the Container Coroporation of America, founded the Aspen Institute and Aspen Skiing Company, and was central to the organization of the Goethe Convocation.

Tuesday, July 5, 1949  In Aspen

Albert Schweitzer said in an interview that despite accusations of materialism, the United States has demonstrated that it is one of the greatest spiritual forces in the world today.  "During these last months, with the help of America," he said, "the situation in Europe has definitely improved and we can now hope to master the situation.   Those who know history have been very much moved by what you have done.  The Marshall Plan has given us new confidence in the future."  He declared himself broadly optimistic regarding the future, despite difficulties and evils that beset the world.  "I have great confidence in the incalculable forces of the spirit.  The future depends on it.  But if these spiritual forces are brought into play the world's future will be improved.  ... Behind materialism it is often possible to discover great spiritual forces at work.  And behind spirituality an element of materialism also exists."   The great problem of our times, he said, "is to safeguard the integrity of the individual.  Two great forces are in eternal conflict in the present-day world, he added, one being the force of collectivism, represented by Hegel, who wanted the individual subordinated to the all-powerful state, and the other, the force of individuality whose great proponent was Goethe. ... Collectivism in various forms has deprived the individual of this individuality.  All the troubles of the world come from this. ... The task immediately before us is to safeguard the integrity of the individual within the modern state."

He also indicated that he was "happy to be in such nice surroundings, despite the altitude which I find trying.  But I think my heart will support it."  He was described as "a round-shouldered man with shaggy, graying hair, a luxurious mustache and eyes that twinkle with humor and benignity."

Wednesday, July 6, 1949  In Aspen

Schweitzer gave his lecture at 9 PM in the tent amphitheater, speaking slowly in French to the largest audience of the festival.  Dr. Hutchins presided, and Dr. Ross acted as Schweitzer's interpreter.  As usual with Schweitzer's writings, it is impossible to summarize his lecture because it is already so succinct and to the point that any summary can only leave out important points.  Therefore I will not try but will settle instead for three short excerpts:

"At the time of his death Goethe was famous, but not known.  His own people had little comprehension of his work.  Abroad he was admired in certain quarters as the author of Werther and of Faust, but his work as a whole was not appreciated.  How little devotion for Goethe there was in his native city of Frankfurt a few years after his death is shown by the fact that the centenary of his birth was not celebrated there because the masses, animated by the revolutionary sentiments of 1848, did not feel inclined to pay homage to one they misjudged as having been the lackey of a prince.

Even he had to admit to himself that his works were not popular.  Only Gotz von Berlichingen and Werther had been successes.  The others found no large audience.  To Eckermann, the devoted companion who was with him from 1823, he expressed his conviction that his writings were not popular and could never become so.

In this he was mistaken.  They have become so.  With the years they have found their way to the hearts of men.  More and more, not only in his country but throughout the world, he had become a chosen one among poets.  Why?  Because this great poet is at the same time a great master of the natural sciences, a great thinker, a great man.  This many-sidedness commands respect and strikes people as something quite special.

And thus it is that in this year 1949 the bicentenary of his birth is a date for the whole world, whereas the centenary had not roused even his native town."

"How an individual by himself and through his own study can arrive at conviction capable of guiding him on the right road throughout his existence: that to Goethe is the question that matters.  He feels that he cannot reach these simple and sound convictions except by starting from reality, from the knowledge he gains by observing nature and by observing himself.  To be a realist in order to win through to true spirituality--this is Goethe's keynote.

The fundamental idea which is of the utmost import is that in nature there is matter and spirit, the two together.  The spirit acts upon matter as an organizing and perfecting force.  It manifests itself in the evolution that is taking place and that we are able to document in nature.

Looking with the eyes of the spirit upon nature, as it is within ourselves, we find that in us also there is matter and spirit.  Searching into the phenomena of the spirit in us, we realize that we belong to the world of the spirit, and that we must let ourselves be guided by it.  The whole philosophy of Goethe consists in the observation of material and spiritual phenomena outside and within ourselves, and in the conclusions that can be drawn from this.  The spirit is light, which struggles with matter, which represents darkness.  What happens in the world and within ourselves is the result of this encounter."

"Such is Goethe, the poet, the scientist, the philosopher, and the man, towards whom our thoughts are particularly directed at this time.  Among us here and among those who are afar off there are those who think of him with gratitude for what he has given them in his so ethical and religious wisdom, so simple and so deep.  With joy I acknowledge myself to be one of their number."

Thursday, July 7, 1949  In Aspen

A Denver Post article on this day notes that while it is clear that Schweitzer is here only because the Goethe Bicentennial Foundation will make a gift of 2,000,000 francs to the Lambarene hospital, Schweitzer "has resisted the inroads of civilization on himself to the extent of turning down offers of $5,000 or more to appear at meetings of luncheon clubs, fraternal orders and the like." Schweitzer was also quoted as indicating that the US press has treated him "like a big banker or a prizefighter."

Friday, July 8, 1949  In Aspen/Enroute to Chicago

Early in the morning, Albert Schweitzer met with Kurt and Alice Bergel at the house where the Schweitzers' stayed. Kurt published a collection of Schweitzer's writings in German and raised some money for the Lambarene hospital, and they had exchanged letters for some time. According to Bergel's diary, Albert told him that the elevation of Aspen was hard on him: "How many a box on the ear did I get as a child when we were in the mountains and I made a nuisance of myself," until "they realized that I could not stand the elevation. Even 800 feet make me uncomfortable, and now they have dragged me up to 8,000." Helene, Walter Paepcke, Professor Giuseppe Borgese (from the University of Chicago and son-in-law of Thomas Mann), and Sam Libschitz (a filmmaker and musician) were also present.

At 10 AM, Schweitzer repeated his same lecture of two days ago, this time in German.  G.A. Borgese introduced Schweitzer, while Thorton Wilder (the playwright and novelist) translated.  As for all festival shows, ticket prices ranged from $1.50 to $5.40 for reserved seats, or $1.20 unreserved.  The tent was almost full, and the audience gave Schweitzer a standing ovation when he was introduced. According to Bergel, Schweitzer "stood on the podium as erect and concentrated as a much younger man."

Immediately after the lecture, the Bergels and Lipschitz drove the Schweitzers to Glenwood Springs, about an hour away. Albert was clearly exhausted. While waiting for the train from Glenwood Springs to Denver, Schweitzer said he regretted that most of his time in America had to be devoted to the purchase of medicine.

Saturday, July 9, 1949  Enroute to Chicago

No record has been found of Schweitzer's activities on this day, but presumably most or all of it was spent in a train enroute to Chicago.

Sunday, July 10, 1949 In Chicago

Again, no record has been found of Schweitzer's activities.  It may be assumed that he continued meeting with visitors, and perhaps worked on the speech he would give the next day.

Monday, July 11, 1949  In Chicago

Schweitzer received the honorary doctorate of laws from the University of Chicago.  More than 5,000 people attended the ceremony, with 2,400 inside the Rockefeller Memorial Chapel and the rest outside listening via a speaker system.  Adlai Stevenson was among the dignitaries attending.  The degree was presented by Dr. Ernest C. Colwell, and Schweitzer was formally introduced by Dean Bernard Loomer of the University of Chicago divinity school.  The citation reads:  "An interpreter who has revived for his own generation the vision of scholar, interpreting the works of Jesus; as musician, interpreting the compositions of Bach; as humanist, interpreting the writings of Goethe; as historian, presenting in philosophic terms the meaning of history; and as a Christian medical missionary, rendering distinguished service to Equatorial Africa."

Tuesday, July 12, 1949  In Cleveland

At the invitation of Walter Holtkamp Sr. (of the Holtkamp Organ Company), Albert visited the organ at the Cleveland Museum of Art. He also is said to have visited a church in Cleveland and played the organ there, although the details of that visit are unclear.

Wednesday, July 13, 1949  Enroute to New York

Schweitzer's activities on this day are unknown. He may have spent much of the day in Cleveland, or may have spent the entire day on a train enroute from Cleveland to New York.

Thursday, July 14, 1949  In New York City

Schweitzer's schedule for this and the next several days included inspecting organs and visiting pharmaceutical factories in the morning, and receiving visitors in Dr. Ross' apartment in the afternoon from two to seven.

Friday, July 15, 1949  In New York City

Schweitzer apparently continued his schedule of inspecting organs and visiting pharmaceutical factories in the morning, and receiving visitors in Dr. Ross' apartment in the afternoon from two to seven.

Saturday, July 16, 1949  In New York City

Schweitzer apparently continued his schedule of inspecting organs and visiting pharmaceutical factories in the morning, and receiving visitors in Dr. Ross' apartment in the afternoon from two to seven.

Sunday, July 17, 1949  In New York City

Schweitzer apparently continued his schedule of inspecting organs and visiting pharmaceutical factories in the morning, and receiving visitors in Dr. Ross' apartment in the afternoon from two to seven.

Monday, July 18, 1949  In New York City/Enroute to Boston

Both Albert and Helene Schweitzer were guests of honor at a luncheon in the Gramercy Park Hotel sponsored by the Department of International Justice and Goodwill of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America.  Albert spoke in French, with Dr. Ross translating.  He said that the future of the Protestant world rests on "all of us finding ourselves tied together by our Christian faith. ... This country has assumed leadership in the problem of the union of churches. ... As little by little there is understanding of churches here and in Europe, there is great satisfaction that you in America realized before Europe the need for church union."

Helene, described as a "tiny, gray-haired woman in a white dress, leaning on her cane" was reluctant to speak, but was persuaded by Mrs. Ross to say a few words.  Mrs. Schweitzer, speaking in good English, said she met Dr. Schweitzer nearly fifty years ago in Strasbourg, when she was Helene Bresslau.  "It started over his manuscripts," she said, describing how she read proofs on several of his books on St. Paul, Bach, and the Quest of the History of Jesus.  She also told of music that served as a mutual interest.  She played the piano, and used to pull the organ stops as Dr. Schweitzer played Bach.  She also described the next step in her career, nursing.  She started nursing in 1902 before it required any state examinations.  She had to study nursing again to pass the necessary tests before leaving with Albert (whom she married in 1912) for Africa in 1913.

There is also a note that Helene Schweitzer "took issue with such articles as 'God's Eager Fool' in a recent Reader's Digest and a current article in Vogue asserting she took up nursing to work with her husband.  It was their common feeling, she said, 'to find their own way, to take what was given and what we had learned and give it to others to help humanity,' she said.  'That brought us together.'"

That evening, Albert left for Boston.  It is unknown whether Helene accompanied him.

Tuesday, July 19, 1949  In Boston and Cambridge

Schweitzer's plans for his three days in Boston included seeing "organs and friends".  He also planned to go to Harvard University where "I will likewise see organs and friends."

He held a press conference at the Unitarian Universalist Church building at 25 Beacon Street. The UUC's Beacon Press published many of his works. When asked what impressed him most about his visit to America, he replied "All these impressions--My impression is that America is not a thing apart by itself; not such a different sort of thing as some have the impression it is in Europe. The buildings are a little higher and the streets are a little longer, but the people are the same. My principle impression is of the very great kindness of the American people and the fact that my philosophy of reverence for life has spread among so many people as it has in this country."

When asked what he considers the world's greatest need, he said "

Because a world which is not under the rule of the real Spirit will perish. There is another thing. The Spirit is so powerful that if one could see the creation of a new spirit in the heart of man there would not be a single problem in the world."

Wednesday, July 20, 1949  In Boston and Cambridge

Schweitzer's plans for his three days in Boston included seeing "organs and friends".  He also planned to go to Harvard University where "I will likewise see organs and friends."  Beyond that, his schedule is not known.

Thursday, July 21, 1949  Return to New York City

Schweitzer returned to New York, in preparation for his departure for Europe.

Friday, July 22, 1949  Departure for Europe

Dr. and Mrs. Schweitzer left for Europe on the Nieuw Amsterdam, the same ship they had arrived on.  Other notables on the ship included Supreme Court Justice Harold Hitz Burton, and Shirley May France, a seventeen-year-old girl from Somerset, Massachusetts, who planned on swimming the English Channel (a front page New York Times article reported on September 7 that the attempt failed after 10 hours and 40 minutes when her father and her coach pulled her from the water, exhausted and hysterical but wanting to continue, six miles short of France).

Before leaving, Albert spoke a few words with reporters, with Dr. Ross translating as usual.  "I have been very much touched by the kindness the photographers and reporters have shown, and I am happy they haven't been too generous with the superlatives that I dislike so much." he said.  "I have been greatly impressed by the simplicity and naturalness of the American people, and much moved by the kindness everyone has had for me and my work."  Schweitzer also made it clear that, despite reporters' comments, neither the temperature nor the humidity that day in New York (ninety degrees and ninety percent humidity) impressed him after his years along the equator.

Schweitzer said that while here he had sought all that was available in new medicines "to help in the struggle against tropical diseases. ... You can imagine what a great satisfaction it is to a doctor who has had thirty-five years in the tropics to see the successes in these laboratories that have simplified our work."  He indicated that he was taking back samples of new medicines and had ordered shipments sent to his headquarters.

After the Visit

Upon arriving back in Europe, Albert Schweitzer went to his home in Alsace.  Over the next few months he visited Paris, Strasbourg, Bordeaux, and other cities.  He sailed for Africa on October 28, where using the money and knowledge gained in America he intensified his work with the leprous.

Albert Schweitzer's Visit to America.  Send comments to: / revised May 1999