Rudolf Stefan Jan Weigl (2 September 1883 – 11 August 1957) was a Polish biologist, physician, and inventor. He is most known for creating the first effective vaccine against epidemic typhus. He founded the Weigl Institute in Lwów (now Lviv), where he conducted vaccine research.
Weigl worked during the Holocaust to save the lives of many Jewish men and women. He played an active role during the time in which he developed a vaccine for typhus as well as provided shelter for Jews, in order to protect them from execution by the Nazis.
Weigl was born in Prerau (now Přerov), Moravia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, to Austrian-German parents. When he was a child, his father died in a bicycle accident. His mother, Elisabeth Kroesel, married a Polish secondary-school teacher, Józef Trojnar. Weigl is of Austrian descent and was raised Weigl in Jasło, Poland. Although he was a native German speaker, when the family moved to Poland, he adopted the Polish language and culture.
Later the family moved to Lviv (Lwów in Polish, Lemberg in German and Yiddish), where in 1907 Weigl graduated from the biology department at the Lwów University, where he had been a pupil of Professors Benedykt Dybowski (1833–1930) and J. Nusbaum–Hilarowicz (1859–1917). After graduation, Weigl became Nusbaum's assistant and in 1913 completed his habilitacja which effectively gave him tenure. He then received his doctorate degrees in zoology, comparative anatomy, and histology.
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. Weigl worked at a military hospital in Przemyśl, where he supervised the Laboratory for the Study of Spotted Typhus from 1918-1920. As he began researching and experimenting with the disease typhus, he discovered and developed a vaccine.
After the invasion of Poland by the Soviet Union in 1939, Weigl continued his research and work at an institution in Lemberg. There, he was able to increase production of his typhus vaccine. Weigl spent the next four years in Lemberg focusing his research on developing a vaccine for the spotted fever. He led and directed the Institute for Typhus and Virus Research based in Lemberg. Weigl was able to create a vaccine for the spotted fever however, it did not offer immunity against the disease. Instead, it reduced the symptoms, allowing for a much milder infection in humans.
During the Nazi German occupation of Poland in World War II, Weigl's research attracted the attention of the Nazis. When they occupied Lviv, they ordered him to set up a typhus vaccine production plant at his Institute. Weigl hired a number of Jewish friends and colleges at the production plant. About a thousand people worked there. Weigl employed and protected Polish intellectuals, Jews and members of the Polish underground. Many of these people he hired assisted him in his typhus research and experiments with lice. Many his Jewish associates helped primarily help feed the lice and in return, they received food, protection, and doses of the vaccine when it was fully developed. His vaccines were smuggled into ghettos in Lviv and Warsaw, various concentration camps, and even certain Gestapo prisons. It was estimated that Weigl was able to save around 5,000 lives during the Nazi's reign. His institute was later shut down by the Soviet Union following their 1944 anti-German offensive.
In 1930, following Charles Nicolle's 1909 discovery that lice were the vector of epidemic typhus, and following the work done on a vaccine for the closely related Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Weigl took the next step and developed a technique to produce a typhus vaccine by growing infected lice and crushing them into a vaccine paste. He discovered that a vaccine could be developed from lice stomachs' infected with Rickettsia prowazeki, a harmful bacteria especially to humans. He developed this first version of the vaccine in 1918 and began experimenting on guinea pigs and even human volunteers. He refined this technique over the years until 1933, when he performed large-scale testing in order to cultivate bacteria and experiment with the lice using a micro-infection strategy..
The method comprised four major steps:
- Growing healthy lice, for about 12 days;
- Injecting them with typhus;
- Growing them more, for 5 additional days;
- Extracting the lice's midguts and grinding them into a paste (which was the vaccine).
Growing lice meant feeding them blood, the more human the better. At first he tested his method on Guinea pigs, but around 1933 he began large-scale testing on humans, feeding the lice human blood by letting them suck human legs through a screen. This could cause typhus during the latter phase, when the lice were infected. He alleviated this problem by vaccinating the human "injectees", which successfully protected them from death (though some did develop the disease). Weigl himself developed the disease, but recovered.
The first major application of his vaccine was conducted between 1936 and 1943 by Belgian missionaries in China. Soon, the vaccines were also administered in Africa. The vaccine was dangerous to produce and hard to make on a large scale. Over time, other vaccines were developed that were less dangerous and more economical to produce, including the Cox vaccine developed on egg yolk.
Later years, death, and legacy
In 1945 Weigl moved to Kraków, Poland. He was appointed Chair of the General Microbiology Institute of Jagiellonian University, and later Chair of Biology of the Poznań Medical Faculty. He retired in 1951 however, production of his vaccine remained at Kraków for some years until discontinued.
Weigl died on 11 August 1957 in the Polish mountain resort of Zakopane. He aged 74 years.
For Weigl's research and work with typhus at Lviv University, Weigl's Institute was created within the department of Typhus Research. The Weigl Institute features prominently in Andrzej Żuławski's 1971 film, The Third Part of the Night.
Awards and honors
Weigl was nominated for a Nobel Prize twice. In 1942, he was nominated for his invention of the typhus vaccine. Furious that he would not sign the Reichslist, the Germans decided to block his nomination and intercept his application. In 1946, Weigl was a frontrunner for the Nobel Prize until the Polish government withdrew his application. The government falsely accused him of collaborating with the Germans following his fellow colleagues' claims of collaboration as well. He was not nominated again until 1948. His second nomination was once again blocked and never processed for candidacy. This time, the Communist officials stepped in and prevented him from getting the chance to be awarded the prize. Despite two nominations, he never received a Nobel Prize for his vaccine accomplishments or social work.
A half-century after his death, Weigl's research, work, and service were recognized by many. In 2003, he was honored as a Righteous among the Nations of the World. This award was given by Israel and commemorated his work for saving countless Jewish lives during World War.
- ^ a b c Waclaw Szybalski, "The genius of Rudolf Stefan Weigl (1883 – 1957), a Lvovian microbe hunter and breeder" In memoriam. McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Research, University of Wisconsin, Madison WI 53705, USA
- ^ "The Doctor Who Protected Jews from Disease and Destruction". International Fellowship of Christians and Jews. 2020-01-29. Retrieved 2021-03-22.
- ^ Wincewicz, Andrzej; Sulkowska, Mariola; Sulkowski, Stanislaw (2007-05-01). "Rudolph Weigl (1883–1957) – a scientist in Poland in wartime Plus ratio quam vis". Journal of Medical Biography. 15 (2): 111–115. doi:10.1258/j.jmb.2007.06-19. ISSN 0967-7720. PMID 17551613. S2CID 37072415.
- ^ Flamm, Heinz (2 December 2014). "Das Fleckfieber und die Erfindung seiner Serodiagnose und Impfung bei der k. u. k. Armee im Ersten Weltkrieg". Wiener Medizinische Wochenschrift (in German). 165 (7–8): 152–163. doi:10.1007/s10354-014-0332-7. ISSN 0043-5341. PMID 25448128.
- ^ a b "Story of Rescue - Weigl Rudolf Stefan | Polscy Sprawiedliwi". sprawiedliwi.org.pl. Retrieved 2021-03-22.
- ^ "Rudolf Weigl's Institute". Lviv Interactive. Retrieved 2021-03-22.
- ^ "Halina Szymanska Ogrodzinska Rescuer Story, Part 1". ellenlandweber.com. Retrieved 2021-03-22.
- ^ Weigl, at www.lwow.home.pl
- ^ a b Barabasz, Wiesław (8–10 July 2015). "The life and scientific activity of Professor Rudolf Stefan Weigl" (PDF).
- ^ "The Righteous Among The Nations". The Righteous Among The Nations. Retrieved 2021-03-22.
- Arthur Allen, The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis, Norton, 2014, ISBN 978-0393081015.