|Rudolf Stefan Weigl|
Rudolf Weigl in his laboratory
September 2, 1883|
Prerau, Austrian Empire
|Died||August 11, 1957
Rudolf Stefan Weigl (September 2, 1883 – August 11, 1957, Zakopane) was a Polish biologist and inventor of the first effective vaccine against epidemic typhus. He founded the Weigl Institute in Lwów, Poland (now Lviv), where he undertook vaccine research. It was there, during the Holocaust, that he harboured Jews and personally risked the death penalty to do so; his vaccines were also smuggled into the local ghetto as well as to the ghetto in Warsaw, saving countless additional Jewish lives.
Weigl had Austrian heritage and was born in Prerau (now Přerov), Moravia. His father died in a bicycle accident when he was a child. His mother, Elisabeth Kroesel, married a Polish high school teacher, Józef Trojnar, and they raised Weigl in Jasło, Poland. Later the family moved to Lviv, where Weigl graduated in 1907 from the biology department at University of Jan Kazimierz, taught by professors Benedykt Dybowski (1833 – 1930) and J. Nusbaum-Hilarowicz (1859 – 1917). After graduation, Weigl became Nusbaum's assistant there and was habilitated in 1913 in the comparative zoology and anatomy department.
Following the Soviet and Nazi German invasions of Poland in World War II, Dr. Weigl's research attracted the attention of the Nazis. When they occupied Lviv, they ordered him to set up a vaccine production plant at his Institute. About a thousand people worked there. Weigl employed and protected Polish intellectuals, Jews and members of the Polish underground. His vaccines were smuggled into ghettos in Lviv and Warsaw saving countless lives, until the Institute was shut down by the Soviet Union following anti-German offensive of 1944.
Weigl moved to Kraków in 1945. He was appointed the Chair of General Microbiology Institute of the Jagiellonian University, and later as the Chair of Biology of the Medical Faculty in Poznań. Production of the vaccine remained in Kraków in the following years until discontinued. Weigl died on August 11, 1957.
The Weigl Institute features prominently in Andrzej Żuławski's 1971 film The Third Part of the Night. In 2003, professor Weigl was posthumously awarded the medal of Righteous Among the Nations of the World by the state of Israel.
Method of Vaccine Production
In 1930, following the 1909 discovery of Charles Nicolle that lice were the vector of epidemic typhus and on the work for the vaccine for the closely related Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, Weigl took the next step and developed a technique to produce the vaccine by growing infected lice and crushing them into a vaccine paste. He refined this technique over the years until 1933 when he performed large-scale testing. The method specifically broke into 4 major steps:
- Growing healthy lice, for about 12 days
- Injecting them with typhus
- Growing them more, for 5 more days
- Extracting the midguts and grinding them up 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 commenced large-scale testing on humans, feeding the lice on human blood by letting them suck on 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 "injectors" heavily, which successfully protected them from death (though some did develop the disease). Dr. Weigl himself developed the disease, but recovered.
The first major application of this vaccine took place between 1936 and 1943 by the Belgian missionaries in China. The vaccine was dangerous to produce and was hard to make on a large scale. Other vaccines were developed over time that were less dangerous and more economical to produce, including the Cox vaccine developed from egg yolk.
- 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
- Halina Szymanska Ogrodzinska, "Her Story". Recollections
- Znak Magazine, Righteous from Wroclaw 24.07.2003, from the Internet Archive
- Weigl, at www.lwow.home.pl
- Biography of Weigl (1967) by Stefan Kryński
- Page with many Weigl links and pictures
- Overview of the experiment--Maintenance of human-fed live lice in the laboratory and production of Weigl's exanthematous typhus vaccine (1999) by Wacław Szybalski
- Ann. Acad. Med. Gedan., 1974, 4, 19-51 by Stefan Krynski, Eugeniusz Becla, and Marian Machel
- Bibliography of typhus and Weigl history articles from PubMed
- Nominations for the Nobel Prize between 1930-1939
- News article about receipt of "Righteous Among the Nations of the World" medal for helping Jews during World War II
- Recollections of Halina Szymanska Ogrodzinska, reporting the underground activities of the Weigl Institute
- Pictures of the Weigl Institute and a little history
- How Charles Nicolle of the Pasteur Institute discovered that epidemic typhus is transmitted by lice: reminiscences from my years at the Pasteur Institute in Paris by Ludwik Gross, August 6, 1996