The Fantastic Adventures of Two Men Who Cultivated Lice - and Saved Lives

The author of a new book tells Haaretz about the two Polish-born scientists who developed a typhus vaccine during World War II.

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War has always been – for lack of a more elegant way to put it – great for the vaccine development business, says author and journalist Arthur Allen.

“There is always a lot of attention to research during wars – to ensure that the soldiers can keep warring,” he says. “That is when militaries and big money get into it.”

During World War II, a vaccine the Germans arguably were most interested in – according to Allen’s new book on the subject – was one for typhus, which had killed between 3 million and 5 million people in Russia and Poland during World War I.

While all but eradicated today, typhus – caused by bacteria that infected people through body lice – was still a horribly contagious disease in the 1930s and '40s. It ravaged communities forced to live in close, unclean quarters – whether the barracks of the eastern front or the concentration camps and ghettos. Untold thousands were to die of it during World War II, including Anne Frank and her sister Margot, both of whom succumbed at Bergen-Belsen.

In “The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis,” published this summer by Norton, Allen looks at two colorful characters at the forefront of the race to find a typhus vaccine. The two also risked their lives to withhold the vaccine from the Nazis, even as they helped save thousands of other lives.

Born and bred in Cincinnati, Allen, who grew up in what he describes as a very Jewish “but not at all religious” community, went off to college planning to become a doctor. After two years of premed, however, he closed his organic chemistry books and switched to Latin American studies, later becoming a foreign correspondent – first in El Salvador during the war civil war, then in Europe based in France and Germany.

When he returned to the United States in the mid '90s and settled in Washington, D.C., Allen realized he was no longer interested in writing about foreign policy or running after politicians. He turned his attention to his first love – science.

While working on another book about vaccines, published in 1997, he stumbled on the history of Polish scientists Rudolf Stefan Weigl (1883-1957) and Ludwik Fleck (1896-1961), who developed the first effective typhus vaccines.

“Their stories stuck with me ... both the weirdness of the Dr. Weigl lab, and also the story of Fleck, working under SS guard at Buchenwald,” Allen told Haaretz in a phone interview. “And eventually I got back to them.”

Surreal method

Weigl’s laboratory was in the Polish city of Lwów (today Lviv in Ukraine) and really was fantastical, as Allen describes it. Weigl gathered thousands of “louse feeders” – people whose main job was to sit around with little cages filled with lice strapped to their legs. Those cages each held up to 30,000 lice, many infected with typhus.

As Allen explains it, this was a way to feed the lice and grow the typhus germs Weigl wanted to research and eradicate. By 1930, using this surreal method, Weigl had developed a viable vaccine. With the start of World War II and the German takeover of Lwów, the Nazis soon demanded that he produce the vaccine for them.

After the war, Weigl was vilified by some as a Nazi collaborator for providing his vaccine to the German army, but others, including some of those very louse feeders, argued that he was a hero who had saved between 1,000 and 3,000 people by hiring them to work in his laboratory. A few of these were Jews, but most were non-Jewish poets, artists, intellectuals and resistance fighters from Lwów – many of whom were also at risk of being killed by the Germans.

The book outlines how, starting in 1940, Weigl smuggled more than 30,000 doses of the vaccine into the Lwów and Warsaw ghettos, where typhus was rampant. This happened while, according to Allen, either Weigl or those working with him sabotaged and weakened batches of the vaccine that were sent off to the Nazis. In 2003, a half-century after his death, Weigl was recognized as a member of the Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem.

Another key character in Allen’s book is Fleck, a Jewish scientist who, later in life, won worldwide recognition as a leading philosopher of science. Fleck worked with Weigl for many years until he was sent off, first to the Lwów ghetto and then to Auschwitz, where he worked in a bacteriological research unit. Finally, in 1943 he was sent to Buchenwald, where the Nazis had established a laboratory dedicated to developing typhus vaccines for the SS.

Some of the book’s most climactic moments, says Allen, take place in Fleck’s lab in the camp – a center of conspiracy where he oversaw the production of a fake typhus vaccine for German troops and Nazi experimenters. Fleck did this while sneaking real doses to desperate inmates.

After the war Fleck, who had to contend with both anti-Semitism and charges of collaboration with the Nazis, eventually moved to Israel, where he lived and worked until his death.

“This is not exactly a Schindler’s list,” says Allen, admitting to the complexities of his two heroes. But heroes they really were, he argues. These were scientists who “responded to the incredible pressures of the time” with scientific inventiveness and seriousness. But perhaps more importantly, they did it “with a degree of humanity.”

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