Typhus was the scourge of humankind for centuries, taking the lives of untold millions, but today it “can be controlled with a single dose of a common antibiotic like doxycycline,” Arthur Allen reports, so it has vanished except “in a few cold, impoverished pockets of the world — in the Peruvian Andes, in the Atlas Mountains of North Africa, in Ethiopia, and even in Russia.” But three-quarters of a century ago, as World War II heated up across Europe, typhus was still among the most dangerous and feared diseases, spread by the body louse among “refugees, soldiers, and other desperate people.” Typhus epidemics “occur when a population is at the end of its tether,” which is what soldiers can be when the pressures of battle have left them exhausted, poorly nourished, filthy and under-clothed.

That is just the condition that many soldiers of the Third Reich were in by the time the war began to turn against them, especially during and after their calamitous defeat at Stalingrad. Hitler and his underlings feared that typhus could imperil them every bit as much as Allied bullets, and undertook a concerted effort to develop a vaccine that was both effective and able to be produced in large quantities. It is the story of that undertaking that Allen tells — and tells very well — in “The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis.”

Probably it is not of Allen’s doing, but the title and subtitle of his book are likely to mislead many readers. The title, featuring as it does “Fantastic,” suggests something over the top, and the subtitle suggests that the two scientists were in cahoots to bamboozle the Nazis. But there was nothing science-fictional about the laboratory in which Rudolf Weigl produced his vaccine, and though Ludwik Fleck had been one of his assistants many years before the war, the two worked far apart and do not seem to have communicated regularly. These are scarcely serious misrepresentations, but they do tend to overhype what is in fact a serious account of the Nazi attack on typhus and the ways in which it backfired.

Weigl, though “the child of ethnic Germans,” grew up near what was then the Polish city of Lwow (it is now known as Lviv and is in western Ukraine) “in an atmosphere in which Polish language and culture predominated.” He was born in 1883, and Fleck, from an assimilated Jewish background, was 13 years younger. Of the two of them Allen writes:

“The ethnicity of Fleck and Weigl had meant little when they were both scientists in a peaceful country working on related problems. But, if we were thinking like Fleck, we would say that he and Weigl, Jew and Pole, entered different thought collectives when the war began. Both men conducted work under the profound duress of a Nazi system that viewed them as subservient. But there were gradations in the degree of enslavement. Weigl would produce his vaccine in the service of the German army, whose medical division, though certainly not free of anti-Semitism and other corrupting influences, had as its principal objective the protection of the German fighting man. Fleck would be commandeered by doctors of the SS, whose objectives were racial, genocidal, and confused. Weigl at one point described his German overseer as ‘my younger colleague.’ Fleck’s term for his boss, Erwin Ding, was ‘dummkopf.’ ”

‘The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis’ by Arthur Allen (W. W. Norton)

Weigl had established himself as a leading authority on typhus long before the war, indeed had developed a system for producing limited amounts of an effective vaccine. When the Germans seized Lwow in the summer of 1941, a German scientist named Hermann Eyer was placed in charge of Weigl’s laboratory there. Eyer was “a morally complex figure” who “served the Nazi military efficiently,” yet “though his early publications suggest that anti-Semitism was part of his world-view and approach to disease, his wartime actions would demonstrate an unusual degree of civil courage.” When Weigl was ordered to work for the Nazis, he “faced a stark choice: suicide or cooperation,” and chose the latter: “When he saw that the lab would function under the direction of Eyer, whom he trusted, he decided to stay, though he would never accept Nazi bribes or pretend that he was one of them.”

At the center of the laboratory were the men and women who were brought there to serve as, in effect, breeding grounds for the lice that Weigl used in producing the vaccine; many of them were intellectuals and others who would otherwise have been sucked into the Holocaust. They were known as “feeders,” for the lice were put in cages attached to their legs. The lice sucked their blood, the beginning of a lengthy process that ended up as vaccine. “We were one big family,” one of them wrote. “Although we were paid a pittance, and the additional allocations weren’t enough to replace the blood we lost, to be a Weigl employee was a mark of ­nobility.” It was also a strategy of survival, as the lives of the feeders were too valuable to be lost in the Nazi murder machine. Allen writes:

“We do not know whether [Weigl] questioned the ethics of producing a vaccine that protected those [who] killed his friends. We know only that the thousands of people saved by his vaccine included the scientific and artistic intelligentsia of Lwow, and that his laboratory smuggled thousands of vaccines to the desperate ghettos of Poland. ­. . . The Weigl lab was a force for good. It could not achieve moral perfection.”

Fleck, meanwhile, as a Jew was far more vulnerable to Nazi whims, but as a scientist with a specialty in typhus he was also too valuable to be thrown aside. He was taken first to the laboratory at Auschwitz and then to the one at Buchenwald, the SS Hygiene Institute’s Department of Virus and Typhus Research. With the encouragement of a fellow prisoner, Eugen Kogon, “a resolute Catholic humanist and journalist” who had “shrewdly sized up [Fleck’s boss] Erwin Ding and made himself indispensable to the man,” Fleck began to produce a fake vaccine that Ding, a vain, ambitious and unprincipled man and no real scientist, did not recognize as such. Kogon testified after the war that since Ding “demanded large quantities of vaccine, we produced two types: one that had no value and was perfectly harmless, and went to the front; and a second type, in very small quantities, that was very efficacious and used in special cases like for comrades who worked in difficult places in the camp. ­. . . The inefficacy of our vaccine could have been revealed, and there were outside experts that the SS had at its disposition who could have investigated and discovered that it wasn’t real. Nothing like that happened. The adventure continued until March 1945.”

The Nazis, who fancied themselves so much more brilliant than anyone else, were in the case of the laboratories at Lwow and Buchenwald surpassingly stupid. Fleck’s vaccines did them no good at all, and Weigl’s helped only a relatively small part of their army, while being smuggled to others in Poland, Jews included, who stoutly opposed the Nazis and everything they stood for. As one speaker put it at Weigl’s memorial service in 1957, “Rudolf Stefan Weigl transformed the louse, a symbol of dirt, misery, and aversion, into a useful object of scientific research and a lifesaving tool.” That so many of the lives he saved were those of men and women whom the Nazis wished to eradicate is evidence enough of the value of his labors.


How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis

By Arthur Allen

Norton. 384 pp. $26.95