The Fan­tas­tic Lab­o­ra­to­ry of Dr. Wei­gl: How Two Brave Sci­en­tists Bat­tled Typhus and Sab­o­taged the Nazis

  • From the Publisher
April 30, 2014

Few dis­eases are more grue­some than typhus. Trans­mit­ted by body lice, it afflicts the dis­pos­sessed — refugees, sol­diers, and ghet­toized peo­ples — caus­ing hal­lu­ci­na­tions, ter­ri­ble headaches, boil­ing fever, and often death. The dis­ease plagued the Ger­man army on the East­ern Front and left the Reich des­per­ate for a vac­cine. For this they turned to the bril­liant and eccen­tric Pol­ish zool­o­gist Rudolf Weigl.

In the 1920s, Wei­gl had cre­at­ed the first typhus vac­cine using a method as bold as it was dan­ger­ous for its use of liv­ing human sub­jects. The aston­ish­ing suc­cess of Weigl’s tech­niques attract­ed the atten­tion and admi­ra­tion of the world — giv­ing him cov­er dur­ing the Nazi’s vio­lent occu­pa­tion of Lviv. His lab soon flour­ished as a hotbed of resis­tance. Wei­gl hired oth­er­wise doomed math­e­mati­cians, writ­ers, doc­tors, and oth­er thinkers, pro­tect­ing them from atroc­i­ty. The team engaged in a sab­o­tage cam­paign by send­ing ille­gal dos­es of the vac­cine into the Pol­ish ghet­tos while ship­ping gal­lons of the weak­ened serum to the Wehrmacht.

Among the sci­en­tists saved by Wei­gl, who was a Chris­t­ian, was a gift­ed Jew­ish immu­nol­o­gist named Lud­wik Fleck. Con­demned to Buchen­wald and pres­sured to re-cre­ate the typhus vac­cine under the direc­tion of a sadis­tic Nazi doc­tor, Erwin Ding-Schuler, Fleck had to make an awful choice between his sci­en­tif­ic ideals or the truth of his con­science. In risk­ing his life to car­ry out a dra­mat­ic sub­terfuge to vac­ci­nate the camp’s most endan­gered pris­on­ers, Fleck per­formed an act of great heroism.

Draw­ing on exten­sive research and inter­views with sur­vivors, Arthur Allen tells the har­row­ing sto­ry of two brave sci­en­tists — a Chris­t­ian and a Jew— who put their exper­tise to the best pos­si­ble use, at the high­est per­son­al danger.

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