The end of World War I saw the worst typhus epidemic in history, with over 30 million cases and approximately three million deaths spanning from Russia to Poland. The problem was only heightened during World War II, however, as the disease continued to spread throughout war-torn Jewish ghettos that consisted of unsanitary, harsh conditions. The Germans, already occupied with fighting the Red Army, didn’t have time to worry about an additional complication and were growing increasingly frustrated with the lack of vaccine progression. Eventually, Doctor Rudolf Weigl was recruited in an attempt to find a viable solution. The louse transmission of typhus had already been proved during World War I, when French Scientists Charles Nicolle observed how the hospital admission workers often fell ill, but the nurses who only dealt with stripped and washed patients never did (Allen, 2014). Nicolle realized that the carrier for the disease was being transported through the clothing, and conducted multiple tests involving lice in order to confirm it. Essentially, when lice bite and attach themselves to the skin, they begin to feed by poking a tiny tube called a stylet through the outermost layer, drawing out blood and excreting. This bite, however, does not actually transmit the disease- the bug’s saliva causes the host to itch and infect themselves with the typhus-laden feces (Allen, 2014).
Bronchitis, deafness, gangrene, memory loss, hallucinations, and distress are possible complications that may follow (Allen, 2014). Yet even with a confirmed source, the multiple attempts to find a vaccine failed. It was extremely difficult- researchers struggled to keep bacteria alive in artificial cultures or the bodies of mice, and there wasn’t a way to infect lice with the disease other than allowing them to feed on sick humans (Allen, 2014). Dr. Weigl, however, would change this. Rudolf Weigl was born in 1883 to two ethnic Germans in the Moravian town of Prerov. After moving from town to town, his family settled in Lwów where, in 1907, he went on to attend the University of Lwów and receive his doctoral degree under zoologist Józef Nusbaum-Hilarowicz (Allen, 2014). From 1917 to 1921, Weigl ran military laboratories for the Habsburgs and the Polish that researched typhus encountered in Russian prisoner of war camps.
and he became determined to formulate a vaccine. He developed a method that involved scientists dissecting the infected lice and harvesting their guts in which the bacteria grew and multiplied (How Scientists Created A Typhus Vaccine In A ‘Fantastic Laboratory,’ 2014). The louse gut was then put into a pot and mixed with a variety of chemicals, successfully creating the first typhus vaccine.
At one point, Weigl himself was infected with the disease after accidentally sticking himself with a broken petri dish that had been in contact with typhus germs (Allen, 2014). Throughout his infection he continued to collect date, encouraging his wife to conduct experiments on him by placing lice-filled matchboxes on his body to feed on his blood at different stages of the illness (Allen, 2014). Weigl began to realize that employment in his institution equalled protection, as associates were given carnets that identified them as workers in the German Army’s typhus institute and enabled them to survive. Additionally, Nazis viewed the institute as dirty and were terrified that anyone involved in the research was infected (How Scientists Created A Typhus Vaccine In A ‘Fantastic Laboratory,’ 2014). Intellectuals, resistance fighters, and members of the underground worked as lice feeders, meaning that they allowed themselves to be fed on by the lice-filled matchboxes (How Scientists Created A Typhus Vaccine In A ‘Fantastic Laboratory,’ 2014).
Weigl was also able to undermine the Germans by sending weakened vaccines to the German army and smuggling doses into the ghettos, telling his bosses that he needed to do experimental work with the vaccine in order to bring it to the ghetto and vaccinate people (How Scientists Created A Typhus Vaccine In A ‘Fantastic Laboratory,’ 2014).