When Paul Dudley White first visited the Albert Schweitzer Hospital in Gabon in 1959, he was struck both by admiration for what Schweitzer had built and by the impression that he’d been transported back in time, “to the Middle Ages to some secluded monastic institution with great devotion to the ideal but not as practically useful in this day and age as certainly it could and should be.”

White, a member of the Class of 1911 and one of the preeminent cardiologists of his generation, proposed to Schweitzer an idea he had for conducting research on heart disease in the local population to add to the global knowledge base on cardiovascular disease. Schweitzer reportedly welcomed the opportunity to collaborate on such research and agreed to provide working space and lodging for two researchers working under White’s National Heart Institute grant.

This 1960 Viso-Cardiette, a battery-operated electrocardiograph secured by Paul Dudley White from the Sanborn Company in Waltham, Massachusetts, was used at Albert Schweitzer’s hospital in Lambaréné, Gabon, for research on heart disease in the local population.

The findings of the six-month study, which appeared in the American Journal of Cardiology in 1962, indicated that about three-quarters of the participants, both outpatients and inpatients of the Schweitzer Hospital, showed evidence of one or more cardiovascular diseases. Rheumatic heart disease, evidenced by a 6 percent prevalence of mitral stenosis, was the most common, while coronary heart disease was “practically nonexistent.”

The authors acknowledged their hope that the study would increase awareness of “our opportunity and obligation to share more generously the life-saving measures of modern medical science with those elsewhere who need so much and have so little.”

Although White did not overcome his initial impressions of Schweitzer’s approach to practice, his two researchers did come to understand and appreciate Schweitzer’s considerable accomplishments. And, although Schweitzer was not an author on the paper, the authors expressed their “deep appreciation” for his “wholehearted cooperation and kind hospitality.”

Image: Courtesy of the Warren Anatomical Museum in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine; John Soares