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.
©2014 Arthur Allen (P)2014 Audible Inc.
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This book provides an over view of the history of Typhus. The author goes into more detail of the typhus epidemics of WWI and WWII. Some scientists call typhus the war disease. Allen tells the story of Rudolf Weigl who developed a vaccine for Typhus. Typhus is caused by the bacterium Rickettsia prowazekii. The Rickettsia is in body lice and unlike in other diseases the Rickettsia also kills the host lice. The body lice live on unclean people and clothing; therefore it flares up when there is social collapse. It is estimated that three to five million people were killed by Typhus in Russia and Poland in WWII. Allen covers in-depth the problems of Typhus in WWII. He stated that the Nazis were obsessed about the disease because of particularly odious aspect of their world view. “The louse carrier of Typhus was the symbol of the Jew in Nazi racial ideology”. The Reich was determined to protect Aryans, especially its military from the malady.
The Nazi turned to Dr. Weigl an ethnic Austrian, and Dr. Ludwik Fleck a Polish Jew to help them with a vaccine. Rudolf Stefan Weigl (1883-1957) had his doctorate in zoology and was drafted by the Austrian-Hungarian Empire during WWI to fight Typhus. In 1921 he established a research institute in Lwow Poland now called Lviv in Ukraine. He was successful in creating a vaccine. His laboratory and “lice farm” is still active today in Lviv Ukraine. Weigl saved many lives of Jews and intellectuals by hiring them in his lab.
Ludwik Fleck (1896-1961) doctorate was in immunology. He joined Weigl in 1919 to work on the typhus research. In 1921 he developed a test to diagnose typhus. He was sent to Buchenwald concentration camp in 1943 to work on the typhus vaccine. He developed two vaccines one was worthless serum he shipped to the SS troops at the front. The effective one he used to secretly treat the prisoners.
Weigl and Flick’s post WWII lives were under the communist rule of Ukraine. Weigl had a jealous supervisor who kept blocking his nomination for the Nobel Prize. Fleck was forced to move to Lublin Poland to teach in the University. He was accused of collaborating with the Nazis and suffered anti-Semitism. In 1957 he managed to immigrate to Israel and died in 1961.
The book does not cover the work of the American and British scientist who also developed a vaccine or the use of DDT to kill the lice. Allen writes without sanctimony and never simplifies the people in the book. He just states provable facts. When writing about the Holocaust it is often difficult not to let emotion get in the way of the facts but the author did an excellent job staying to clinical detail. Allen avoided writing a depressing narration with a masterful attention to detail, Allen has assembled a story of tragedy, courage, scientific creativity and ethics.
Dennis Holland does a good job narrating the book. If you are interested in scientific history or WWII history this is an excellent captivating story for you. I barely covered the highlights of the story you will need to read the book to fully understand the complexities of the story.
I bought this Audible edition in order to learn more about 1) the struggle of scientists to find a vaccine for typhus, and 2) how some of those pioneering scientists used their knowledge against the Nazis during WW II. The author addresses both themes quite thoroughly, with a bit too much detail and repetition. So many Germanic, Polish and eastern European names are mentioned that I sometimes found it difficult to keep track of who was whom and which side individuals were on. The story line jumps back and forth through time, creating further confusion.
Dennis Holland's narration was excellent. However, I feel that the complicated nature of the information in this book is better served by the written version. It is no simple matter to go back through an audio version in order to clarify facts or the time line. A text version would facilitate sorting through the abundance of material.
As for the title, while Dr. Weigl and his lab were indeed fascinating, I didn't see anything fantastic about either. That part of the title must have been constructed to catch the eye of potential readers. It would have been more accurate to stick with the second portion of the book's title. Even that part only hints at the depth of material in this book and gives no sense of the large number of people involved in the story.
Immediately before listening to this narration, I read "The Illustrious Dead," by Stephan Talty, a book about the effect of typhus on Napoleon's troops during his attempt to conquer Russia in 1812. Though the Russian climate and that country's valiant soldiers both had significant impacts on Napoleon's army, it appears to be typhus that decimated and conquered his troops. It was very satisfying to follow that read with Arthur Allen's book. I suggest that anyone interested in the nature of typhus, one of the great killers of all times, should do some preliminary reading about its effects over the centuries before taking on this book. That would add some helpful perspective to Allen's work.
All in all, I am glad to have listened to Arthur Allen's book and plan to revisit it again, when I have time. It is the sort of work that benefits from an investment of time and focus.
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