The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl

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The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl
Arthur Allen • 2014, Norton, 384 pp.
Book cover for "The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl"

Science books often tell how a scientist has explored one bit of the world. Medical stories tell how a valiant doctor struggled to cure one disease. But this scientific-medical history tells us how one courageous scientist beat the odds and saved hundreds of scientists from deportation and death.

The scene in Arthur Allen’s new book was World War II Poland, a country wracked by oppression, occupation and deportation. In the city of Lwow, Rudolf Weigl’s lab made vaccine against typhus, a dreaded bacterial disease that, spread by body lice, afflicts soldiers and refugees.

Lwow, now Lviv, Ukraine, was occupied by the Soviets in 1939, the Germans in 1941, and then the Soviets once again in 1944. Weigl had developed the best typhus vaccine in the world, so his skills were in great demand during the war.

Item #1 on Weigl’s vaccine recipe was herds of lice to grow the typhus bacterium. Since lice feed on human blood, that entailed a herd of human blood donors. In Weigl’s lab, these “feeders” strapped cages to their legs, waited 45 itchy minutes as the parasites drank their fill, and then replaced the cages with new ones.

That need for human subjects allowed Weigl to employ scientists and mathematicians, saving them from deportation (and likely death) by whichever tyranny happened to be cracking the whip at the moment.

Weigl published little on his vaccine, a departure from the scientific canon that “had an unintentionally positive effect …,” Allen writes. “In the absence of a ‘cookbook’ on how to mass-produce the Weigl typhus vaccine, the Soviets and the Nazis alike would depend on Weigl himself to continue its production.”

A contrast to Weigl’s “fantastic laboratory” comes from descriptions of atrocious Nazi “medical experiments” at the death camps Auschwitz and Buchenwald, where a department of typhus and vaccine research attempted to keep the German military machine healthy.

Much of what Allen learned about the Weigl lab came from Waclaw Szybalski, who worked there with his father and brother. As Allen writes, “On two occasions, Weigl saved the Szybalskis from deportation by insisting that they were crucial to his laboratory operations.”

Szybalski, who later became a noted geneticist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, told us that Weigl “was protecting his friends, Poles, Jews, Armenians, first from the Russians for two years, then from the Germans for the next three years. He protected whoever he could, he was not afraid.” Both the Germans and the Soviets “thought he was very useful. He gave a hard time to the KGB [Soviet secret police], said ‘You are arresting my people and so I cannot serve.'”

Somehow, Weigl managed to survive and protect, Szybalski says. “Some people have so much personality that even your enemy is afraid to touch you.”

And that, finally, expresses the heart of this book: How scientists can live in the world, instead of apart from it. When cruelty became normal under two of the most savage tyrannies of the 20th century, Rudolf Weigl had the courage, intelligence and scruples to resist.

– David J. Tenenbaum