"The eminent American Schweitzer scholar A.G. Rud praises her book as ‘a great advance in Schweitzer scholarship’, and so it is, drawing new fruits from a variety of international archives and creating a sensitive biographical narrative, suffused by a rigorous, undogmatic and compassionate judgement."—Contemporary Church History Quarterly
"A remarkable achievement, this compelling, meticulously researched biography restores Helene Schweitzer Bresslau to her proper stature in history as a modern professional woman of tremendous accomplishment, who, against the odds, fashioned an independent life for herself."—Kathleen B. Jones, author of Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt
"As Marxsen makes clear in this readable study, Helene was more than the traditional, sacrificial good wife to a great man. Rather on her own terms she was a forceful humanitarian who played a significant role in the development and continuation of the Schweitzer Hospital in Gabon, West Africa. Based on new primary sources this is the first English language study of a woman whose international life offers new insights into a forgotten woman and her times. Helene Schweitzer did indeed have a life of her own that is worth remembering."—Jean H. Baker, author of Mary Todd Lincoln: A Biography
"In a new and thoughtful examination of the life of Helene Schweitzer, Patti Marxsen presents us with a picture of a resourceful, intelligent, independent-minded woman. Drawing on new primary material and recent publications, especially in German, she gives us an account of this remarkable woman, which is not compromised by being written in the shadow of her iconic husband. At once absorbing, moving and thought-provoking."—Dr. James Carleton Paget, Senior Lecturer in New Testament Studies, University of Cambridge.
"Patti Marxsen’s book will challenge Schweitzer scholars to further consider the role and importance of Hélène Schweitzer. . . . I urge anyone interested in the legacy of Albert Schweitzer and his remarkable wife to read this book."—A. G. Rud, College of Education, Washington State University
Born in Berlin, Helene Schweitzer came of age in Strasbourg during a time of great social, architectural, and historical developments. It was in this cultural milieu, as a history professor’s daughter, that Helene met a young pastor named Albert Schweitzer (1875–1965) and developed a deep friendship that flourished for a decade before their marriage in 1912. During those years, she served as the first woman Inspector of City Orphanages in Strasbourg, a position she held for four years before becoming a certified nurse. She also edited and proofread a number of Schweitzer’s books in multiple fields as they worked together to realize their shared dream of devoting their lives to humanity. Together in 1913, Albert and Helene Schweitzer founded what is now the longest-running hospital established by Europeans in Africa, the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in current-day Gabon.
With her quiet strength, clear sense of purpose, independent spirit, and wide range of skills and talents, Helene was a model for many other women who later served the Schweitzer Hospital. Drawing upon the couple’s lifelong correspondence, as well as Helene’s journals and professional writing, Marxsen reveals a modern woman of courage in dark times whose resilient, optimistic spirit allowed her to leave a lasting legacy that has yet to be fully understood.
Helene Schweitzer’s dramatic life reveals deeper questions of how memory is influenced by gender assumptions and how biography is shaped by place and history. By providing a counter-narrative to the traditional image of a frail woman who sacrificed her life to her husband’s genius, this richly detailed chronicle of a little-known figure invites a larger discussion about the meaning of a woman’s life obscured by a partner’s fame.
Patti M. Marxsen is a journalist, essayist, translator, and independent scholar. She is the translator of Albert Schweitzer’s Lambarene: A Legacy of Humanity for Our World Today by Jo and Walter Munz.
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