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  1. Book ImageThe Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis

    Arthur Allen

    “Thought-provoking…[Allen] writes without sanctimony and never simplifies the people in his book or the moral issues his story inevitably raises." —Wall Street Journal

Discussion Questions

  1. Arthur Allen describes lice as a highly symbolic pest, which has stood for many things throughout history. What are some of your associations with lice? What are the most prominent associations with lice at the outbreak of World War II, and why?
  2. Before his imprisonment, Dr. Fleck developed his own philosophy of science: “Science, he wrote, was a culturally conditioned, collective activity bound by traditions that were not precisely logical and were generally invisible to those who carried them out.” Do you agree with his relativistic theory of science? How does it relate to the Nazi science of Geomedizin? Do you think Fleck was proven correct?
  3. Fleck’s philosophy of science also places great emphasis on the importance of “thought collectives” that tackle scientific problems. What “thought collectives” are part of the story of Fleck, Weigl, and the Nazis? What “thought collectives” have you been part of? Did you experience any of the benefits—and dangers—that Fleck ascribes to such groups?
  4. The city of Lviv is richly evoked in this story: a vibrant center for art, culture, and learning, that falls on hard times. What was your sense of the character of Lviv and its people, before, during, and after the Occupation? How did it change? Who were Lviv’s most memorable characters for you?
  5. Dr. Weigl shows tremendous loyalty toward Lviv, refusing to leave it even after German and British academia made him tempting offers. Why do you think he is so loyal to the city? Have you ever felt this kind of loyalty toward a place you have lived?
  6. Before his imprisonment, Fleck wrote, “It’s easier to heal a sick person than to really understand what is wrong with him.” What does he mean by this? How do you think this relates to the Nazi policies of World War II? Does this idea relate to Germany after the war, as well?
  7. What do you think of Dr. Weigl’s decision to cooperate with the Nazi occupation, and make typhus vaccine for the Wehrmacht?
  8. How would you describe the attitude inside Dr. Weigl’s laboratory during the War? Do you think the atmosphere affected the work Dr. Weigl’s team was able to do? How?
  9. Arthur Allen explores the politics and hierarchies among the inmates in Buchenwald and Auschwitz. Did you learn anything that you didn’t know about these camps and their power structures? What surprised you most?
  10. Hermann Eyer is a morally fraught character. His son Peter later says, “Every physician was faced with this question. Should I help the wounded soldier survive, knowing that if he’s put back together he’ll use his rifle to kill people? Should I help him? The answer is not simple.” What do you think the answer is? How does Eyer navigate this difficult question? Do you think he’s successful?
  11. Many people in this story are morally fraught: they make heroic decisions, but also participate in the evil of the Nazi regime in various ways. Even Dr. Weigl assists the German war effort. Do you think morality is relative or absolute? What are some of the different perspectives on this question presented in The Fantastic Labratory?
  12. In a story with many acts of villainy, what acts of heroism were most inspiring to you?

About Arthur Allen

Arthur Allen has written for the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, The Atlantic, the Associated Press, Science, and Slate. His books include Vaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine’s Greatest Lifesaver. He lives in Washington, where he writes about health for Politico.

Books by Arthur Allen

  1. Book CoverThe Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis

    “Thought-provoking…[Allen] writes without sanctimony and never simplifies the people in his book or the moral issues his story inevitably raises." —Wall Street JournalMore

  2. Book CoverVaccine: The Controversial Story of Medicine's Greatest Lifesaver

    "A timely, fair-minded and crisply written account."—New York Times Book ReviewMore