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The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis [NOOK Book]


From a laboratory in wartime Poland comes a fascinating story of anti-Nazi resistance and scientific ingenuity.

Few diseases are more gruesome than typhus. Transmitted by body lice, it afflicts the dispossessed—refugees, soldiers, and ghettoized peoples—causing hallucinations, terrible headaches, boiling fever, and often death. The disease plagued the German army on the Eastern Front and left the Reich ...
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The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis

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From a laboratory in wartime Poland comes a fascinating story of anti-Nazi resistance and scientific ingenuity.

Few diseases are more gruesome than typhus. Transmitted by body lice, it afflicts the dispossessed—refugees, soldiers, and ghettoized peoples—causing hallucinations, terrible headaches, boiling fever, and often death. The disease plagued the German army on the Eastern Front and left the Reich desperate for a vaccine. For this they turned to the brilliant and eccentric Polish zoologist Rudolf Weigl.

In the 1920s, Weigl had created the first typhus vaccine using a method as bold as it was dangerous for its use of living human subjects. The astonishing success of Weigl’s techniques attracted the attention and admiration of the world—giving him cover during the Nazi’s violent occupation of Lviv. His lab soon flourished as a hotbed of resistance. Weigl hired otherwise doomed mathematicians, writers, doctors, and other thinkers, protecting them from atrocity. The team engaged in a sabotage campaign by sending illegal doses of the vaccine into the Polish ghettos while shipping gallons of the weakened serum to the Wehrmacht.

Among the scientists saved by Weigl, who was a Christian, was a gifted Jewish immunologist named Ludwik Fleck. Condemned to Buchenwald and pressured to re-create the typhus vaccine under the direction of a sadistic Nazi doctor, Erwin Ding-Schuler, Fleck had to make an awful choice between his scientific ideals or the truth of his conscience. In risking his life to carry out a dramatic subterfuge to vaccinate the camp’s most endangered prisoners, Fleck performed an act of great heroism.

Drawing on extensive research and interviews with survivors, Arthur Allen tells the harrowing story of two brave scientists—a Christian and a Jew— who put their expertise to the best possible use, at the highest personal danger.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Polish biologist Rudolf Weigl (1883-1957) invented the first effective vaccine against epidemic typhus, but that, as Arthur Allen's new book tells us, is not even half his story. To help eradicate a disease that killed tens of millions was, of course, no small achievement, but during his decades of laboratory work, Weigl also managed to perform numerous other humane acts. During the Second World War, this brilliant, eccentric scientist was able to use his lab institute as a cover to save numerous intellectuals, Jews, and anti-Nazi activists from the German death camps. Drawing on extensive interviews and research, The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl also recounts the moving story of Ludwig Fleck, a talented Jewish immunologist who worked in the Weigl Institute, but was sent to Buchenwald where he risked his life to vaccinate prisoners in the camps.

Publishers Weekly
Journalist Allen (Vaccine) shares the virtually unknown story of how two Polish scientists worked for the Nazis during WWII and used their positions to simultaneously conduct important medical research and save Jews from the Holocaust. Rudolf Weigl, who in the 1930s developed the first true vaccine against typhus, was put to work by the Nazis producing the vaccine and conducting research to improve it. Ludwik Fleck, a Jewish assistant to Weigl, was forced to conduct similar work for the Nazis from within the concentration camp system. Weigl smuggled typhus vaccines into the Jewish ghettos and used his institute to shield important Polish resistance fighters and intellectuals from the Gestapo. Meanwhile, Fleck used his status as a medical researcher to get the Nazis to protect his Jewish medical team from persecution inside the Buchenwald concentration camp as he produced bogus results for his Nazi supervisors. Both men were able to continue their research as they assisted those actively fighting the Nazis and survived the occupation of Poland. Allen delivers a captivating story of ethics during wartime and the perils of working with the enemy. Photos. (July)
Tilli Tansey - Nature
Jonathan Kirsch - Jewish Journal
“Wholly surprising and affecting.”
Howard Schneider - Wall Street Journal
“Painfully thought-provoking … [Allen] writes without sanctimony and never simplifies the people in his book or the moral issues his story inevitably raises.”
Laura Fischer Kaiser - ScienceNews
“Allen’s vivid depictions of the scientific community before and during the war and the treacherous parallel paths Weigl and Fleck traversed—gleaned in part from interviews with Holocaust survivors—are stirring. Considering all the energy channeled into mere survival, Allen’s book makes you wonder what pinnacles of research might have been achieved by now, if not for the march of war.”
Washington Post
“It is the story of [producing an effective typhus vaccine] that
Allen tells—and tells very well.”
Paul A. Offit
“A combination of Microbe Hunters, Schindler’s List, and The Twilight Zone. I couldn’t put it down.”
George Makari
“An extraordinary story of medical research amid horror. . . . Unforgettable.”
Nathan Guttman
“With masterful attention to detail, Arthur Allen has assembled a story of tragedy, courage, and scientific creativity. A fantastic laboratory, and a fantastic book.”
Dr. Walter Orenstein
“An outstanding history.”
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-05-17
The harrowing story of two brilliant immunologists, one Christian, one Jewish, who were separated during World War II yet found heroic ways to turn their typhus vaccine research against the Nazis.In a twist of irony not lost on Allen (Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato, 2010, etc.), Nazis were deathly afraid of lice. The little insects were known to carry typhus, a dreadful contagious disease that ravaged communities forced to live in subhuman conditions, including soldiers on the war front as well as inmates in concentration camps and ghettos. It therefore became a wartime imperative to eradicate the disease. In Poland, scientist Rudolf Weigl (1883-1957) and his assistant, Ludwig Fleck (1896-1961)—who would later write the seminal text The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact—were both enlisted to develop a typhus vaccine: Weigl in the service of the German army and Fleck under SS guard at Buchenwald. Their stories, beautifully told within the devastating tumult of Poland's unfolding history, describe the war from a vivid perspective: that of the laboratory saboteur. Weigl secretly used his lab to smuggle vaccines to the Polish ghettos and recruited many intellectuals as lab workers, saving their lives. (Frequently, these respected thinkers would be hired as louse-feeders, letting the creatures feed on their own blood—a surreal scene.) Meanwhile, Fleck's lab was also a center of conspiracy, and his sabotage was even more dangerous and cunning: He produced a fake typhus vaccine for German troops and Nazi experimenters while sneaking real doses to desperate inmates. Both scientists risked terrible deaths to defend the idea of moral good despite the corruption, bloodshed and evil surrounding them. Allen is unflinching in his retelling of this monstrous era, but he manages to avoid writing a depressing narrative. Instead, Weigl, Fleck and their vaccines illuminate the inherent social complexities of science and truth and reinforce the overriding good of man.An unforgettable book.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393244014
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 7/21/2014
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 400
  • Sales rank: 55,570
  • File size: 5 MB

Meet the Author

Arthur Allen has written for the New
York Times Magazine, the Washington Post,
The Atlantic, the Associated Press, Science,
and Slate. His books include Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver. He lives in
Washington, where he writes about health for Politico.
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    Posted October 26, 2014

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