the (sic) Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl

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The Book of the Week is “the [sic] Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl, How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis” by Arthur Allen, published in 2014. This disorganized story presented horribly confusing time frames, alternating between scenes of the main characters, with a large amount of historical context thrown in– which made the book’s title misleading, besides. But it provided information on a lesser-known aspect of WWII: the evolution of the typhus vaccine that saved countless lives.

Anyway, in 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire drafted the two doctors described in the story, as medics for the Kaiser’s army. Dr. Rudolf Weigl was born in 1883 in what is currently Czech Republic. Dr. Ludwik Fleck was born in 1896, and was Czech, Austrian and Polish. They both lived in the city of Lviv (aka Lwow or Lemberg) for a significant period in their lives. Weigl studied typhus there at the Polish National Health Institute of Hygiene (PZH).

Fleck opined that the contradictory medical journals of the 1930’s weren’t particularly useful, so doctors needed to use their personal smarts when diagnosing patients. Patients could be carriers of an illness, but not have symptoms themselves. For decades, Weigl was experimenting nonstop by breeding body lice (rather than head lice) as the spreaders of typhus– that fed on human blood. The guts of those lice were then injected with typhus-contaminated blood solution. He developed a vaccine that worked better than the competition’s.

Later on, during WWII, the German military ordered Weigl to refine the vaccine (because different strains of typhus appeared) to protect its soldiers. Fleck’s immediate boss was a spy for the SS (Security Service) who ordered him to do medical research that minimized the possibility that Aryans would contract a disease such as typhus, in the name of creating a master race. His ultimate boss was Heinrich Himmler.

Beginning in autumn 1939, new Soviet bosses imposed their will on Fleck and Weigl. Fleck previously had a private medical lab, but he was named head of the microbiology department of the new Ukrainian Medical Institute, led Lviv’s Sanitation and Bacteriological Laboratory, and conducted research at the new Mother and Child Hospital.

Weigl received and took the savvy advice that he should avoid joining the Communist Party, because inevitably, eventually, Stalin would turn against him and he would be thrown in the gulag, or worse. He also heeded the warning that he should engage in corruption only insofar as it helped him survive. Excessive corruption would get him in trouble. Different armies took over certain territories in Eastern Europe during the war years.

Beginning in summer 1941, fearing for his and his family’s life, Weigl cooperated with the Nazis rather than the SS and local German leaders in Lviv. His reasoning for insisting on keeping his private lab was that, if the Nazis killed him, he’d be viewed as a martyr. He let a German VIP help him supervise the research, though. He saved hundreds to thousands of lives of Jews of Polish origin. Their false identity papers allowed them to be hired as medical guinea pigs by having body lice feed on their blood.

Starting in the early 1940’s, the Nazis needed medical doctors who happened to be Jewish, so they spared them, but they compelled them to commit atrocities doing research. During wartime typhus epidemics, deaths of Polish and Soviet Jews were significantly higher than those of people of other ethnicities due to anti-Semitism. For, the Nazis ordered medical doctors to refrain from treating Jews in their quarantined ghettos. The SS needed the Jews’ slave labor in factories to further the war effort, so the Jews weren’t confined to the ghettos. They therefore spread typhus, anyway.

Through the years, the constantly-improved vaccines developed by Weigl were used (and spread far and wide in black markets) in Ethiopia, Manchuria, North Africa, and Eastern Europe. Britain, however, decided to take steps to kill the lice rather than muck about with a typhus vaccine.

Read the book to learn how American soldiers fared during times of typhus epidemics; plus much more about vaccines other than Weigl’s, about the Soviets on the Eastern Front, the history of Buchenwald, the adventures of Fleck and his family at Auschwitz, the fates of the people associated with different vaccines, and other ways various peoples combated typhus.