Seventy-five years ago, the Albert Schweitzer Fellowship was established as the first international organization to support Dr. Albert Schweitzer’s hospital in Africa. Much has changed within our organization and in the world, but the core of our mission―improving the health of vulnerable people―has remained constant.
When the Schweitzer Fellowship was founded in 1940, World War II was raging. German troops were marching through Europe, bombing England, and building extermination camps. With the war also extending into Africa, Dr. Schweitzer was extremely distressed to find that he and his Lambaréné Hospital, founded in 1913, were again besieged by a world engulfed in war. Having been detained, imprisoned, and ill in Europe during World War I and its aftermath, Dr. Schweitzer was determined to stay in Africa and keep the hospital open. The hardships of World War II, including supply embargos and threats of invasion, did not diminish Dr. Schweitzer’s resolve to continue his work serving the people of Lambaréné.
The seeds of the Schweitzer Fellowship were planted in 1938, when Dr. Schweitzer’s wife, Helene Bresslau, embarked on a U.S. lecture tour. Her goal was to enlist American support for the Lambaréné hospital. Responding to her plea for assistance, a “Committee of Friends” led by missionary Emory Ross and Middlebury Professor Everett Skillings became the driving force behind forming an American organization. Two years later, the Schweitzer Fellowship was established.
In the ensuing decades, armed with Dr. Schweitzer’s twin mandates to support the hospital and advance his philosophy of Reverence for Life, the Schweitzer Fellowship expanded its mission beyond the walls of the Schweitzer hospital. In the 1960s and1970s, the organization supported programs and projects such as American civil rights organizations and the education of African exchange students in the U.S., as well as helping to finance the Biafra children’s relief program in Africa. Additionally, the Schweitzer Fellowship sponsored concerts, lectures and was instrumental in the founding of the Aspen Institute.
In the 1970s, ASF president Larry Gussman enlisted the assistance of Massachusetts Senator Edward Brooke and a young lawyer named Mark L. Wolf, to negotiate an important grant from USAID that helped build the modern Schweitzer Hospital, which opened in 1981. Wolf, who would later be appointed to a federal judgeship, joined the Schweitzer Fellowship’s board of directors and in 1979 initiated the Lambaréné Fellows program to send senior medical students to serve at the hospital.
A 1982 Lambaréné Fellow, Lachlan Forrow MD, eventually joined Wolf on the Fellowship’s board. They realized that the Schweitzer Fellowship could address the needs of vulnerable people here in the U.S. as well as in Africa. In 1991, Wolf and Forrow ushered in the current era of the Schweitzer Fellowship by expanding the organization’s mandate to address health disparities in the U.S. by establishing the US Fellows program. Wolf now serves as Chairman Emeritus of the ASF Board of Directors; Forrow serves as President Emeritus.
Today, the Fellowship’s mission has evolved such that it is primarily focused on improving the health of communities by preparing the next generation of health and human service professionals to serve and empower vulnerable people to live healthier lives. As such, Dr. Schweitzer’s legacy continues through the work of the Fellows, and his philosophy influences public health, healthcare delivery, and health policy.
From leading nutrition and physical activity workshops for newly arrived refugees in North Carolina to implementing an educational program to improve children’s oral health in Los Angeles, more than 3,000 Schweitzer Fellows have completed more than 500,000 hours of service to more than 300,000 people in need. Meanwhile, more than 100 Fellows have provided care at the hospital in Lambaréné. As these Fellows for Life, our alumni, move into the workforce, they serve in leadership capacities and work to improve care and policies in health and human service agencies across the country and throughout the world.
As we celebrate this milestone anniversary throughout 2015, stay tuned to us on this blog, our Facebook page, and on Twitter where we’ll share updates on our work, and the events we have planned for this year!