Rudolf Weigl was a Polish biologist, physician, and inventor who created the first effective vaccine against epidemic typhus, a deadly disease that was rampant during World War II. He also used his vaccine to protect and rescue thousands of Jews, intellectuals, and resistance fighters from Nazi persecution. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine several times and was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations for his humanitarian efforts. In this blog post, we will explore his life, work, and legacy.
Early Life and Education
Rudolf Weigl was born on September 2, 1883, in Prerau, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to Austrian parents of Austro-Moravian descent. His father died in a bicycle accident when he was a child, and his mother remarried a Polish secondary school teacher, Józef Trojnar. Weigl was raised in Jasło, Poland, and adopted the Polish language and culture.
He graduated from the biology department at the Lwów University in 1907, where he studied under Professors Benedykt Dybowski and J. Nusbaum–Hilarowicz. He became Nusbaum’s assistant and completed his habilitation in 1913, which gave him tenure. He then received his doctorate degrees in zoology, comparative anatomy and histology.
Typhus Research and Vaccine Development
After the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Weigl was drafted into the medical service of the Austro-Hungarian army and began research on typhus and its causes. Typhus is a bacterial infection that is transmitted by lice and causes high fever, rash, headache and delirium. It can be fatal if left untreated. Weigl worked at a military hospital in Przemyśl, where he supervised the Laboratory for the Study of Spotted Typhus from 1918 to 1920. In 1919, he became a member of a military sanitary council in the Polish army.
Weigl discovered that typhus is caused by Rickettsia prowazekii, a microorganism that lives inside the gut of lice. He also found that injecting lice with blood from typhus patients could induce immunity in them. He then developed a method to extract the infected lice guts and use them as a vaccine for humans. He tested his vaccine on himself and his colleagues before applying it to the general population.
Weigl’s vaccine proved to be effective in preventing and reducing typhus outbreaks in Poland and other countries. He established the Institute for Typhus and Virus Research in Lwów in 1920, where he continued his work on typhus and other infectious diseases. He also collaborated with other scientists and received international recognition for his contributions. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine each year between 1930 and 1934, and from 1936 to 1939.
Resistance and Rescue During World War II
After the invasion of Poland by Germany in 1939, Weigl faced a difficult situation. The Nazis wanted to use his vaccine for their own soldiers and allies, but they also imposed harsh restrictions on his institute and persecuted Jews and other groups. Weigl decided to use his position and influence to resist the Nazi regime and save as many lives as possible.
He employed hundreds of Jews and intellectuals who were at risk of being arrested or deported by the Gestapo. He gave them false identities as his workers or researchers and provided them with food, shelter and protection. He also smuggled his vaccine to Jewish ghettos, prisons and concentration camps, where typhus was rampant. He helped many members of the Polish resistance by supplying them with his vaccine or hiding them in his institute. He also participated in underground education and cultural activities.
Weigl’s actions were very risky, as he could have been executed or sent to a concentration camp if discovered by the Nazis. However, he managed to avoid detection by bribing some German officials or convincing them of the importance of his work. He also maintained contact with some of his former colleagues who had escaped to other countries or joined the Allied forces.
Weigl is estimated to have saved around 5,000 lives during World War II with his vaccine and humanitarian efforts. He was later honored by Yad Vashem as a Righteous Among the Nations in 2003.
Later Life and Legacy
After World War II ended in 1945, Weigl moved to Kraków, where he became a professor at the Jagiellonian University. He also worked at the University of Poznań and the Polish Academy of Sciences. He continued his research on typhus and other diseases until his death on August 11, 1957, in Zakopane. He was buried at the Rakowicki Cemetery in Kraków.
Weigl’s legacy lives on in his scientific achievements and humanitarian deeds. His vaccine was used to eradicate typhus in many parts of the world and paved the way for further research on rickettsial diseases. His institute in Lwów became a center of excellence for microbiology and immunology in Poland and Eastern Europe. His courage and compassion inspired many people to fight against oppression and injustice.
Weigl was a remarkable man who used his knowledge and skills to serve humanity. He was a pioneer of vaccine development and a hero of resistance and rescue. He deserves to be remembered and celebrated as one of the greatest Polish scientists and humanitarians of all time.