Magazine article Science News

The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl

Magazine article Science News

The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl

Article excerpt

The Fantastic

Laboratory of Dr. Weigl

Arthur Allen


The bacteria that cause typhus rely on the body louse to spread. Because lice thrive wherever people are crammed together under unsanitary conditions, typhus became a threat to armies and refugees alike during World War II. As a result, Nazi Germany "whipped itself into a typhus terror," writes science journalist Allen.

That fear sets the stage for Allen's book, which tells the intertwining stories of two scientists who fought on separate fronts to develop typhus vaccines and thwart the Nazis.

Before World War II, Polish biologist Rudolf Weigl had used lice to grow typhus bacteria, which are difficult to cultivate in vitro, and developed the first effective vaccine using the parasites' blood-bloated guts. After invading Poland, the Nazis pressed Weigl to produce the vaccine for the German army. A kind of Oskar Schindler of science, Weigl, a Christian, found a spot in his lab for many educated Poles needing protection. Thus, a prized job in Nazi-occupied Poland became louse feeder. Every day hundreds of Poles came to Weigl's lab and strapped matchboxes filled with body lice to their legs so the parasites could gorge on human blood.

One of Weighs assistants during the vaccine's development was Ludwik Fleck, who was Jewish. An immunologist by training, Fleck became known for his philosophical theory of "thought collectives," which holds that no matter how objective scientists try to be, they cannot escape certain cultural tendencies. …

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