I completed the book entitled The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl yesterday, a little late but at least I finished (I am notorious for not finishing books). I had to stop reading it for a couple of days due to bad dreams about lice. Seriously.
Typhus is a serious febrile illness that is no longer common. It is spread by body lice (not head lice). The disease was well-known during wartime, especially in the trenches of World War I & II. It spreads quickly in crowded, unsanitary conditions where people are rarely able to wash or change clothes. When the Nazis herded the Jews of cities like Warsaw into ghettos, epidemic typhus struck explosively.
A Polish biologist named Rudolf Weigl began studying typhus during World War I. By WWII, when the Nazis occupied Poland, Weigl had developed a vaccine that was produced using live lice infected with the bacterium. The vaccine took a long time to make, and since lice feed only on human blood, human louse feeders were needed in order to grow them. A group of lice were placed in a very small wooden cage in which one wall was a fine mesh screen large enough to let them feed but not large enough so they could escape. These cages were strapped to the legs of volunteer louse feeders and kept on for an hour twice a day.
When the lice first hatched, anyone could feed them, because they were healthy. At a certain point in their development, however, they were infected with typhus. After that, only people who had already survived the infection were allowed to feed them. Because most people did not want to have lice feeding on them, Weigl was able to save a substantial number of Jews, Polish intellectuals, and other people who were targeted by the occupying Germans. Weigl’s laboratory made vaccine for the German army, but also smuggled some to the ghettos, saving the lives of many people.
Another scientist who worked on typhus vaccine was Ludwik Fleck, a Polish Jew who had studied under Weigl at one time. After he was sent to the ghetto, he worked in the hospital there and developed a vaccine using the urine of typhus patients. Later, first in Auschwitz and then in Buchenwald, Fleck employed a large number of Jews and members of the resistance in his laboratory, keeping them from being gassed or otherwise killed. His laboratory made two kinds of vaccine: a weak vaccine that was given to the Germans, and a more potent one that was secretly given to prisoners arriving in the camp and occasionally even sent home to the ghettos.
After the war, both Weigl and Fleck were accused of collaboration with the Nazis, and many of their fellow citizens blamed them for not standing up for their people. I think that the situation was not as simple as the accusers seemed to think. First, both men wanted to help people, and they did their best. Both would have found their laboratories taken away from them — and the people they sheltered would have been killed — if they had not provided some benefit to the Germans. Second, they clearly provided as much vaccine to those that needed it as they could.
This book was difficult to read at some points, since it described some of the horrors of the Holocaust, but it was well-written and not too technical. It was true to its title: a fascinating story of two fascinating scientists.