Helene Schweitzer Bresslau


Helene Schweitzer Bresslau (1879—1957): Albert Schweitzer’s Wife, Colleague, and “Most Loyal Friend”

by Patti M. Marxsen

From Berlin to Strasbourg

Helene Schweitzer Bresslau was born in Berlin in 1879 to a cultivated family of assimilated Jews. She grew up with two brothers, Hermann and Ernst, as well as the younger sister and brothers of her father, history professor Harry Bresslau (1848-1926). A nephew of Helene’s mother, Caroline Bresslau Isay (1853-1941), was also part of this lively household where the children were taught to care for one another by observing their parents. But despite a harmonious life at home, the reality of anti-Semitism in Berlin was so troubling to Harry Bresslau that he made a point of having his three children baptized by a Lutheran pastor during a family vacation in 1886. One can only wonder what the seven-year old Helene understood of her new religious identity.

Soon after, in 1890, the family moved to Strasbourg, then part of the German Empire, when Harry Bresslau joined the faculty of Kaiser Wilhelm University and, eventually, was appointed chancellor. With his wife and their circle of Altdeutschen (literally “Old Germans” but, more accurately, implying “Authentic Germans”),[1] the Bresslau family participated in the progressive and modern life that Strasbourg represented at the time. Young Helene—who had suffered an attack of pleurisy a year before the move—was not enthusiastic about adjusting to her new surroundings. Of course, she could not have imagined how the largest city in Alsace would influence her life.

Growing up, Helene remained close to her family in Berlin, which included several independent women like her aunt Clara Heyssens and Harry Bresslau’s cousin, the artist Johanna Engel. Perhaps due to their influence, at the age of 16 Helene became qualified to teach young girls. As a young woman, she went out alone in the evening to sing at the church of Saint-Guillaume, where a talented young organist named Albert Schweitzer accompanied the choir. She studied music at the Strasbourg Conservatory and history at the University of Strasbourg as one of the first female students to enter the institution. Another mark of her modernity was the bicycle club she established with her friend Elly Knapp. After “officially” meeting the dashing young Albert Schweitzer at a wedding in 1898, Helene Bresslau invited him to join the bicycle club. They both enjoyed outings along the Rhine with friends and alone together. It was on one of those excursions in 1902 that Helene Bressau and Albert Schweitzer made a pact of profound and enduring friendship.

In 1904, Helene enrolled in a three-month nursing program at the City Hospital of Stettin, in eastern Germany, far from family and friends. However, this was not her first trip away from home. In 1899, Helene spent six months traveling in Italy with her parents during her father’s sabbatical. And in the winter of 1902-1903, she was in England for a semester of teaching. In her spare time, she attended meetings where she found herself inspired by the ideas of British social work pioneer Thomas John Barnardo (1845–1905). Helene lived in a milieu where international travel and prolonged separations from family and friends were a normal part of life.

The study of Helene Bresslau’s early interests and instincts for developing a professional life reveals that long before the age of twenty-five, she saw herself as a modern woman who desired a career of her own. She chose nursing and social work because these were readily open to her. Not long after her studies in Stettin, Helene accepted a job in Strasbourg as the first woman inspector of the City Orphan Administration, a position she held for four years (spring 1905 to spring 1909). In addition to that demanding role, she found time to co-found a home for unwed mothers in the Strasbourg suburb of Neudorf that opened in November 1907, ready to welcome eight unmarried women and their children. Helene valued hard work as much as she valued her relationship with Albert Schweitzer, though this deep connection was at the center of both of their lives, as over 600 letters written prior to their marriage clearly demonstrate.[2]

Her decision to enroll in a rigorous course of study in Frankfurt and become a certified nurse (1909-1910), suggests that Helene’s choices reflected her decision to share in the life and work of Albert Schweitzer. By then, he had resolved to become a medical missionary in French Equatorial Africa; Helene intended to accompany him, even though the question of marriage between them was far from settled. Before the pivotal year of 1909, she was working to build her own identity and seek her own destiny as a professional social worker with an office near the Strasbourg Cathedral. She worked with determination at her job, but also devoted time and talent to the editing and indexing of Albert Schweitzer’s first major publications—in theology, philosophy, and music.[3] As Helene’s German biographer, Verena Mühlstein, comments, “Helene Schweitzer Bresslau was always conscious of her own importance. She knew she had a strong influence on Albert Schweitzer and played a truly important role in his work.”[4]

Married Life in Africa

Albert and Helene were married in the village of Gunsbach, where Albert’s father was a pastor, on June 16, 1912. By the third week of March, 1913, they were on board the Europa en route to French Equatorial Africa, ready to co-found the Schweitzer Hospital on a riverbank of the Ogowe River at Andende, across from Lambarene Island, with limited support from the Paris Mission Society. By then, Albert had doctorates in theology, philosophy, and medicine, and was already well-known for his biography of J.S. Bach. Helene was a registered nurse, an experienced social worker, intelligent, independent-minded, and in possession of a highly-developed social conscience. According to Schweitzer’s most widely-read English biographer, James Brabazon, “Helene’s social conscience was as developed as Schweitzer’s and, furthermore, she possessed enthusiasm, efficiency, and a certain indifference to social convention.”[5] At the age of thirty-four, she was embarking on a new experience and a great adventure as she voyaged toward the mystery called Africa.  Because she understood how unusual this experience was, she decided to record her impressions in a journal designed to make five copies of every page to send to friends and family. Although Schweitzer used this diary (Tagebuch in German) when he wrote his first memoir of Africa, the 320-page document written between March 26, 1913, and November 22, 1915, has remained unpublished and largely unstudied.[6]

When the Schweitzers finally arrived at their destination, on April 16, 1913, they climbed the hill in the heat to reach the mission station of Andende, feeling content and almost triumphant. But after three weeks of travel at sea, the Schweitzers were immediately confronted with the reality of virulent insects, oppressive heat, and the urgent need to organize a house and a hospital in derelict buildings. Patients were waiting, informed by the traditional system of drums, but it would be another two weeks before medical supplies and medications arrived from . As Schweitzer wrote in On the Edge of the Primeval Forest, they treated 2,000 patients during the first nine months in Africa in 1913.[7] To relax, they took evening walks around the small mission station at the top of the hill or sat on the veranda writing letters. The next day, they would begin again, facing diseases like elephantiasis, and working to relieve the commonplace condition of strangulated hernias.

From her diary, one senses that Helene felt confident as she went about her life, taking care to document as much as possible, for documentation was always important to her. She even brought a guest book with her to Africa, a small emblem of her well-mannered world, suggesting her intimation of the historic significance of her present life. New friends who signed the book included Richard Clasen, a timber dealer from Hamburg, and Alsatian missionaries, Georgette and Léon Morel. They had friends among the Africans as well, like the indigenous nurse Joseph Azowani, and a curious little boy named Acaga. As we try, a century later, to imagine Helene Schweitzer’s daily life at this time, it is clear that she was one of the twentieth century’s first experts at multi-tasking. As Schweitzer confirmed in his autobiography, “My wife, who had been trained as a nurse, gave me invaluable assistance at the hospital. She looked after the serious cases, oversaw the laundry and bandages, worked in the dispensary, sterilized surgical instruments, etc…”[8] She also managed the household and found time to make a record of their daily life.

In this period, Helene comes across as optimistic and adventurous in the face of the unknown. For her, as for other women who would follow, a life in Africa represented an opportunity to experience a special kind of independence. “Madame Docteur,” as she was called by the native people, was an active partner from the beginning, and an ardent worker. Her deep connection to Africa solidified in the first years along the Ogowe, allowing her to feel connected to Lambarene for the rest of her life regardless of where she was.. It was a world that never left her.

World War I

On August 5, 1914, news of war in reached Lambarene, and a new chapter began for Helene and Albert Schweitzer. As German citizens living and working in a French colony, they were placed under house arrest as “civil prisoners of war,” with three black militia men posted outside their house to protect the French population. Schweitzer was forbidden to practice medicine until African patients persuaded authorities to allow him to continue. Meanwhile, life became more difficult than ever. Donations were minimal. Reserves ran low. Albert and Helene even learned to eat monkey flesh for protein, as a mean of combatting tropical anemia.

This difficult situation became even more fraught in November of 1917 when the Schweitzers were deported to southern France to one of the dozens of camps established for civil prisoners of war. Their first destination was an old monastery in the Hautes Pyrénées, where the chapel of Notre-Dame de Garaison had existed since 1604, near Monléon-Magnoac. Over the years, this complex of old stone buildings had been a pilgrimage site and a monastery. From the outbreak of World War I until December 1919, it was an “Austro-German Concentration Camp” where over 2,000 people were interned for reasons as varied as Alsatian ancestry and gypsy identity; they were housed along with “foreigners” from French colonies, like Helene and Albert Schweitzer. Among the indignities of this camp were restricted movement, censured mail, bad food, and crowded conditions. But, as the only doctor available in the camp, Albert was able to work. Intellectual work continued as well on his multi-volume The Philosophy of Civilization that would finally be published in 1923; volume two was dedicated to Helene “My wife—my most loyal friend.”[9]

Unfortunately, they were not allowed to remain at Garaison. In late March 1918, the Schweitzers were transferred to an exclusively Alsatian civil prisoner of war camp, another old monastery in the village of St. Rémy de Provence. Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, with its damp stone floors, sat adjacent to a former insane asylum where Vincent Van Gogh had spent most of the last year of his life before committing suicide in 1890. Among the paintings he made during that last, troubled year, many depict the southern wind, the “mistral,” that Helene found particularly troublesome.

She had been suffering from increasing fatigue ever since they had been forced to spend three weeks confined to a barracks in Bordeaux, prior to their internment in Garaison. In addition to her poor health, Helene experienced the first signs of pregnancy at St. Rémy at age 39. Although the journal she kept at the time in rhyming German verse makes it clear that she was a keen observer of life around her, it does not reveal her inner thoughts.[10] However, the excellent volume edited by Germanist Robert Minder to commemorate Albert’s 100th birthday in 1975, offers important insights into this period of internment.

Fortunately, Helene and Albert Schweitzer were repatriated in the summer of 1918 as part of a prisoner exchange. Happily, their first and only child—a daughter, Rhena—was born on her father’s forty-fourth birthday, January 14, 1919. The decade ahead would not be easy for Helene because of health challenges that included a diagnosis of open tuberculosis. Added to this challenge was Albert’s decision to return to Africa and rebuild the hospital, a decision that meant more than three years of single motherhood for Helene in the 1920s. But in many ways, Rhena gave Helene a reason to persevere.  In addition to the sense of purpose Lambarene represented, she now had a daughter whose life would be entwined with hers as long as she lived.

World War II

As a woman of Jewish origin living in Königsfeld, Germany, while her husband spent most of his time in Africa, Helene’s life throughout the 1920s was not easy. Once the National Socialist party rose to power with the election of Adolf Hitler as Chancellor in 1933, Germany was simply not livable. Late in 1932, Helene moved to Lausanne, in part for Rhena’s education, but also to distance herself from Germany. Throughout the 1930s, she travelled often with her husband who gave outspoken lectures with a veiled political message in Frankfurt, London, Cambridge, and Edinburgh. Helene continued to seek freedom and opportunity for Rhena by moving to the United States at the end of 1937, where she made friends and raised funds for the Schweitzer Hospital in Lambarene. Most significantly, she organized a lecture tour—complete with a slide show—that she delivered throughout the winter and early spring of 1937–38 in New York, Baltimore, Philadelphia, Washington, and Boston/Cambridge. This first “public relations” campaign in favor of the hospital, and Helene’s talent as a public speaker, deserves far more credit than it has been given for bringing Americans into the international community of Schweitzer Hospital supporters.[11]Among other things, Helene’s presence in America in 1938 helped to establish a circle of interest that is, today, the Boston-based Albert Schweitzer Fellowship.

In June 1940, Helene Schweitzer found herself in Paris, visiting her daughter’s young family, which included a new baby, when Hitler’s troops invaded the city. The next year of her life was a challenging odyssey through southern France, into Spain, and then to the gateway of Lisbon, where she boarded a neutral Portguese vessel, the Angola, and made her way back to Africa. Once she arrived in the Belgian Congo, after changing ships in Angola, another odyssey began, but a much shorter one. On August 2, 1941, Helene stepped into a pirogue on the Ogowe River that took her to the dock of the Schweitzer Hospital, where Albert Schweitzer was waiting. This remarkable journey can only be explained by Helene’s talent for organization, as well as her patience and determination.[12] Happily, she would remain in Lambarene, working as a nurse, until the autumn of 1946.

Later Years

Although Helene made several trips to and from Lambarene during the last decade of her life, her fifth and longest sojourn in Africa (1941-1946) was her last opportunity to work actively at the Schweitzer Hospital with a complete sense of satisfaction. Other satisfactions followed—including accompanying Schweitzer on his only trip to America in 1949, her moving speech at the University of Freiburg in 1952 before an audience of over 800 people, and Albert’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo in 1954. But to feel involved and still essential at the hospital she had co-founded in 1913 was a special gift, perhaps because it was unexpected. After the war, she returned to her cottage in Königsfeld in Germany’s Black Forest where she devoted herself to sorting and organizing her personal archives. Ever concerned with accurate documentation, she wanted to be sure her part in Albert Schweitzer’s life and work was correctly preserved for posterity that, by this time, included four grandchildren.

Helene Schweitzer Bresslau was always an active, engaged partner in Schweitzer’s life and work and had, along the way, also created her own work. She was never as distant from Lambarene as previously thought, nor was the marriage a “disastrous marriage of convenience” as one particularly misguided biographer has stated.[13] In total, Helene spent more than a decade of her life on the banks of the Ogowe, and her spirit remains there. The work that began with shared idealism and a profound respect for humanity that Albert Schweitzer formulated as his philosophy of “Reverence for Life” in 1915, was at the center of Helene Schweitzer’s universe for more than 40 years. Among the key features of her legacy, Helene Schweitzer Bresslau served as the prototype for the dozens of active, modern women who would devote some part of their lives to the remote hospital in a place that became the Republic of Gabon in 1960. In Albert Schweitzer’s lifetime, sixty-five percent of those who worked at his side were women. From professional skills to adventurous spirits, they echoed the first woman who stepped off a boat, climbed a hill, rolled up her sleeves, and went to work in there for the good of humanity. An understanding of Helene Schweitzer Bresslau’s role in the long history of the Schweitzer Hospital is far more than a feminist invention. It is a correction of a historical narrative that favors one man and, consciously or not, diminishes many others. One, in particular, should never be forgotten—his wife, colleague, and “most loyal friend.”


[1] Note that while all translations from French sources are my own, translations from German sources have been greatly improved by Dr. Hans-Peter Müller.

[2] The pre-Lambarene letters of Albert and Helene Schweitzer were discovered in the 1980s by their daughter Rhena, and the first edited selection was published in German in 1992. More recently, a three-volume, French edition of an expanded selection of letters offers not only the nuances of the young couple’s developing relationship, but also of European society before World War I. See Die Jahre vor Lambarene and Albert Schweitzer et Hélène Bresslau: Correspondance, 1901–1912, Edited and translated by Jean-Paul Sorg, 3 vols, (Colmar: Jérôme Do Bentzinger, 2005–11).

[3] Evidence of Helene’s involvement in Albert Schweitzer’s writings is readily found in the Albert Schweitzer Nachlass of the Manuscript Department of the Zentralbibliothek Zürich (Zurich Central Library).

[4] Verena Mühlstein, Helene Schweitzer Bresslau: Ein Leben für Lambarene, (München: C. H. Beck Verlag, 1998), 9.

[5] James Brabazon, Albert Schweitzer, 2nd ed., (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000),142.

[6] I am grateful to Verena Mühstein for bringing this document to my attention, and to the Schweitzer-Eckert Family for allowing me to quote from it in my book, Helene Schweitzer: A Life of Her Own (Syracuse University Press, 2015). Note that the location of the original remains unknown.

[7] Albert Schweitzer, On the Edge of the Primeval Forest – Experiences and Observations of a Doctor in Equatorial Africa, trans. C. T. Campion (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1921), 42.

[8] Albert Schweitzer, Out of My Life and Thought, trans. Antje Bultmann Lemke (New York: Henry Holt, 1990), 139.

[9] “Meiner Frau—meinem treuesten Kameraden” is the dedication to Civilization and Ethics, volume two of the larger work.

[10] See the Helene Schweitzer Papers in the Antje Bultmann Lemke Collection Relating to Albert Schweitzer. Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries.

[11] Ibid. “Dr. Schweitzer’s Hospital Work in Lambarene.” Unpublished lecture by Helene Schweitzer presented in diverse venues in the United States, 1937-38.

[12] Ibid. The Lemke Collection at Syracuse University includes numerous journals kept by Helene Schweitzer, including that of 1941.

[13] Edouard Nies-Berger, 1995. Albert Schweitzer as I Knew Him, trans. Rollin Smith (Hillsdale, NY: Pedragon Press, 2003), 33.



Brabazon, James. Albert Schweitzer. 2nd ed. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2000.

Marxsen, Patti M. Helene Schweitzer: A Life of Her Own. Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2015.

Minder, Robert. Rayonnement d’Albert Schweitzer: 34 Études et 100 Témoignages. Colmar: Alsatia, 1975.

Mühlstein, Verena. Helene Schweitzer Bresslau – Ein Leben für Lambarne. München : C. H. Beck Verlag, 1998.

Nies-Berger, Edouard. 1995. Albert Schweitzer as I Knew Him. Translated by Rollin Smith. Hillsdale, NY: Pedragon Press, 2003.

Schweitzer, Albert. On the Edge of the Primeval Forest – Experiences and Observations of a Doctor in Equatorial Africa. Translated by C. T. Campion. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1921. [Originally published in Swedish as Mellan urskog och watten, Trans. Greta Lagerfelt in 1921, then as Zwischen Wasser und Urwald. Bern: Paul Haupt, 1921.]

——Out of My Life and Thought: An Autobiography. Translated by Antje Bultmann Lemke. New York: Henry Holt, 1990. [Originally published as Aus meinem Leben und Denken, 1931.]

——The Philosophy of Civilization. 2 vols. 1923. Translated by C. T. Campion. London: A. & C. Black, 1923. [Originally published as Kulturphilosophie, 1923.]

Schweitzer, Albert, and Helene Bresslau. Albert Schweitzer et Hélène Bresslau: Correspondance, 1901–1912. Edited and translated by Jean-Paul Sorg. 3 vols. Colmar: Jérôme Do Bentzinger, 2005–11.

——. Die Jahre vor Lambarene: Briefe von 1902–1912. Edited by Rhena Schweitzer-Miller und Gustave Woytt. München: C. H. Beck, 1992.

Schweitzer, Helene. “Dr. Schweitzer’s Hospital Work in Lambarene.” Unpublished lecture presented in diverse venues in the United States, 1937-38. Antje Bultmann Lemke Collection Relating to Albert Schweitzer. Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries. TS. [English]

——. Helene Schweitzer Journals and Day Books, 1918-1951. Antje Bultmann Lemke Collection Relating to Albert Schweitzer. Special Collections Research Center, Syracuse University Libraries. [German and French]


Page citation:
Marxsen, Patti M. “Helene Schweitzer Bresslau.” Project Continua (2014): [date accessed], http://www.projectcontinua.org/biographies/index/s_index/helene-schweitzer-bresslau.

Tags: , , , , , ,

Related Pages


Project Continua is Under Construction

Please click through for our old site, and stay tuned for updates


   Instagram  Find us on Instagram

Skip to toolbar