Patti Marxsen Presents Her New Biography, Helen Schweitzer: A Life of Her Own.
Many people have heard of Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Dr. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) and his multiple accomplishments in theology, music, and humanitarian work. But few have heard of “Mrs. Albert Schweitzer,” the proverbial “woman behind the man” whose story has never been told in English—until now. Patti M. Marxsen’s Helen Schweitzer: A Life of Her Own, the biography of Helene Schweitzer Bresslau (1879-1957), has just been published by Syracuse University Press after four years of writing and research in five countries on three continents. On Tuesday, May 26,7:00 pm, the author will make her first public presentation of her new book at the Camden Public Library.
“Helene Schweitzer was a brilliant, cultivated young woman who had already made her mark in social work and public health before she married Albert in 1912,” Marxsen says. “He was fortunate to have her at his side as co-founder of the Schweitzer Hospital in French Equatorial Africa (present-day Gabon) and also in the editing of his bestselling books. In fact, Albert Schweitzer as he was known to the world would probably not have existed without Helene’s lifelong devotion.”
So why did she gradually fall into the shadows of her famous husband? According to Marxsen, whose book has been described as “a great advance in Schweitzer scholarship” by Dr. A.G. Rud of Washington State University, there are “tropes” of frailty and sacrifice that explain the public image of Helene in relation to Albert. “Helene did have significant health challenges, including tuberculosis,” Marxsen explains. “But she never wished to be defined by her health or the state of her body. The argument I advance in the book is that the stereotypes that eventually shaped her public image also served to strengthen the perception of Albert Schweitzer as a heroic, saintly figure, which explains why he said very little about her contributions in his public statements or writings and all but omitted her from the documentary about his life that won an Academy Award in 1957.”
In many ways, Marxsen’s book is a biography of a marriage, and a very modern one at that. Once the Schweitzer Hospital was rebuilt and well established in the 1920s, the pair often lived apart, “commuting” between Africa and Europe where Helene raised their daughter in Germany until Hitler came to power in 1933. She then lived in Switzerland and, in 1940, found herself in Nazi-occupied France as a woman of Jewish origins. Among the accomplishments of Marxsen’s work is the new material she discovered in the course of her research that includes fifty years of Helene’s private journals. In one of them, she detailed her escape from Europe in 1941 and the dramatic three-week journey on land and sea that ended with her arrival at the Schweitzer Hospital, the place she described in her last interview as “home.”
In the author’s view, Helene Schweitzer’s life is fascinating in itself, but also conceals 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. “Helene Schweitzer’s life is one of those woman’s lives that illustrates how much the world has changed,” Marxsen says.
For further information, please call the library at 207-236-3440. A book signing will follow the presentation.
*Photo of Helene Schweitzer, 1932, Courtesy of Archives Centrales Schweitzer Gunsbach (France).