Among the heroes who during the Nazi occupation dedicated themselves to protecting and saving the lives of thousands of people is the Polish scientist Rudolf Weigl, who specializes in microbiology and parasitology. He knew how to take advantage of his knowledge, and also the respect he instilled in the totalitarian regime to take advantage of it, to employ intellectuals and Jews persecuted by the Gestapo. In this way he protected them from arrests and saved their lives, since no one wanted to have contact with those they considered plagued for participating in the experiments to inoculate them with viruses.
Critical but tolerant, Rudolf Weigl was gifted with unusual imagination and experimental talent. Scientists from other countries were always delighted with his brilliant concepts when they visited him. However, despite this investigative clairvoyance, he was not a typical scientist, as some of his assistants considered him a bad teacher. And it is that Weigl never taught others, although you could learn a lot from him. He did not train his assistants or supervise their investigations; but those who took personal initiative in the investigation were successful.
His great achievement was to discover the vaccine against typhoid fever that caused so many deaths at the beginning of the last century. However, the process was long because Weigl was very cautious as he was not a medical doctor, so he considered long preliminary laboratory experiments necessary before starting the immunization of humans.
The Polish scientist belonged to the category of researchers who preferred to work in their laboratories to publish their studies and discoveries. 90% of his work remained unpublished or was only communicated by word of mouth, including all his experimental research with arthropods, and it is that Rudolf Weigl’s method of documentation was so chaotic, according to those who knew him, that his notes were unintelligible.
His work was recognized by two Nobel Prize nominations, and it is that, from the study of a tiny louse, to saving the lives of more than 5,000 people, his findings and his legacy endure today far beyond the discovery of the typhus vaccine.
Rudolf Stefan Weigl was born on this day, September 2, 138 years ago, in 1883, in the Austro-Hungarian city of Przerów (now the Czech Republic). Fatherless since he was a child, his mother’s second marriage to a Polish teacher allowed him to grow up in Poland and learn to love his adopted country, with its language, culture and customs.
In 1907 he graduated in Natural Sciences from the University of Lwów, where he became an assistant to the eminent scientist and professor Nusbaum-Hilarowicz. He graduated in 1913 in Zoology, Comparative Anatomy and Histology, and his early work, related to cell structure and transplantation, earned him great prestige in his time.
His mastery of histological technique and his interest in cytology influenced Weigl’s entire scientific career and inspired his research. In 1914 he was appointed a parasitologist in the Polish army, and while millions of people in Eastern Europe were affected by typhus, Weigl was determined to stop its spread and dedicated his life to it.
During the First World War Rudolf Weigl invented the world’s first effective vaccine against spotted fever. He continued his research on typhus and finding a vaccine at the Institute of General Biology at the University of Lwów, later called the Weigl Institute. He was director of the Institute both during the Soviet occupation of Lwów and after the invasion of the city by the Germans. He always maintained his position despite refusing to sign the Nazi precepts and was not removed from his post because the vaccine produced by the Institute was used, as the most effective, for the needs of the German army.
For this reason, Weigl realized that being a worker at the Institute was the best chance of survival for those who were in danger. The identification of any employee was a sure means of protection against arbitrary arrests by the Gestapo, avoiding contact with people who might be infected with typhus. For this reason, the professor began to hire in the Institute those who were in danger, mainly members of the underground movement, intellectuals and Jews, using them as feeders of lice for your experiments.
During the process of creating the vaccine, Weigl invented a system that allowed him to grow the bacteria Ricketsia prowazekii -responsible for typhus- in the intestine of lice, a novel method taking into account that at the time this type of research was only carried out in animals such as guinea pigs and rabbits. The method consisted of inoculating this bacterium in the anus of the insect, using a needle smaller than a capillary.
And since these insects reproduce very easily and quickly, Rudolf Weigl created a lice farm. In a closed enclosure, the researcher fed the insects with human blood, including his own in order to test his vaccine by means of the growth of the bacteria in the lice.
Since the Nazis were already sending Jews to concentration camps, Weigl managed to get thousands of Jews to be the feeders from your lice farm. The function of these feeders It consisted of sitting for an hour and placing a belt containing several cages of lice around the thigh to allow them to bite them. That is, they allowed insects to feed on their blood. There was no danger of direct contagion, as the cages were designed so that the insects would stick their heads out without escaping, and the bacteria spread through the lice feces, which were dispersed if the bites were scratched.
Today it is estimated that Weigl saved around 5,000 people from Lwów’s academic circles, Jews and members of the underground movement. Once the vaccine was produced at the Institute, through underground connections it reached civilians, partisans, the city ghettos and Warsaw, as well as concentration camps and Gestapo prisons.
After the end of the war, Professor Rudolf Weigl settled in Krakow and continued his scientific research at the Jagiellonian University, where he was appointed president, and later – until his retirement in 1995 – at the University of Poznań, where he also served as Dean of Biology. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize twice, the first time in 1942, but his nomination was blocked by the Germans in revenge for his refusal to accept German precepts. The second nomination was in 1948, but the communist authorities prevented its award. For many years, Professor Weigl was also falsely accused by some of his colleagues of collaborating with the Germans.
Rudolf Weigl died on August 11, 1957, at the age of 73, in the Polish mountain town of Zakopane. Half a century after his death, many recognized Weigl’s research, work and service, not only to science, but also to humanity. For that reason, in 2003 he was honored with the title of Righteous Among the Nations of the World. This recognition was awarded by Israel and commemorated their work in saving countless Jewish lives during World War II.