Heroes Sabotage Nazis with Fake Typhus Vaccine: It Really Happened

I imagine it's hard enough to be a scientist in the best of conditions because it amounts to exacting work demanding complete focus. I think it is almost unfathomable to perform such work in less than ideal situations, let alone war torn nations or dictatorships. The latter is the setting of The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis by Arthur Allen. 

This book tells two stories: one about typhus and the other about the scientists plight under Nazi rule. 

There are a few facts about typhus that I think everyone should know:

  • It is a disease known since antiquity
  • It is spread through body lice
  • It can wreak destruction in populations that don't wash their clothes regularly -- just ask Napoleon
  • Countermeasures against typhus were a priority for the military in the pre-antibiotic era

Given this context, you can see how typhus vaccine---invented by Rudolf Weigl--would attract the attention of the Germany military during WWII. 

The enormous benefit and ingenuity needed to make the vaccine isn't the most remarkable part of the book however. What I found most remarkable was that during the Nazi occupation of Poland, when the laboratories were under strict Nazi control,  heroic scientists thought to sabotage the Nazis by giving inert control vaccine to the Nazis while giving real vaccine to those in the Jewish ghettos. 

Such acts really give concrete form to the definition of hero, formulated by philosopher Andrew Bernstein, as "the man who lets no obstacle prevent him from pursuing the values he has chosen."

Jane Eyre, Louse Dodger

I recently watched the 2011 movie version of Jane Eyre. Since it has been about 20 years since I read the novel in high school some of the plot details had become somewhat hazy (pun intended for the really nerdy), including the multiple instances in which the infectious disease typhus is mentioned.

In the novel, typhus runs rampant at Lowood, the boarding school to which Jane is sent, and Jane's wicked aunt falsely reports Jane's death from typhus to another relative. Jane herself never contracts the disease.

Typhus, not to be confused with typhoid, is caused by Rickettsia prowazekii and carried by the human body louse.  The word is derived from the Greek work typhos, which means hazy or smokey, a reference to the dazed mental state characteristic of the disease. Because of the relationship between cleanliness, the body louse, and the typhus microbe, this disease has a special place in history--one of my favorite aspects of infectious disease.

Epidemic typhus was considered a major health threat for most of history and remains so for certain parts of the world today. The use of epidemic typhus as a bioweapon is also a concern.

Probably the greatest role typhus has taken on is in thwarting Napolean's invasion of Russia, the subject of The Illustrious Dead. Typhus was also responsible for the death of President Franklin Pierce's son. Today, the disease occurs in situations enticing to lice such as in refugee camps. 

One of the other reasons I like typhus is because one of its foremost researchers was Hans Zinsser, who delivered my favorite quote regarding infectious disease, capturing the entire allure of the discipline:

Infectious disease is one of the few genuine adventures left in the world. The dragons are all dead and the lance grows rusty in the chimney corner. ... About the only sporting proposition that remains unimpaired by the relentless domestication of a once free-living human species is the war against those ferocious little fellow creatures, which lurk in dark corners and stalk us in the bodies of rats, mice and all kinds of domestic animals; which fly and crawl with the insects, and waylay us in our food and drink and even in our love.