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The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl

How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis

Arthur Allen (Author)


“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

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.

Book Details

  • Paperback
  • July 2015
  • ISBN 978-0-393-35104-0
  • 5.5 × 8.3 in / 400 pages
  • Sales Territory: Worldwide

Endorsements & Reviews

“It is the story of [producing an effective typhus vaccine] that Allen tells—and tells very well.” — Washington Post

“Astonishing.” — Politico

“Fascinating.” — Tilli Tansey, Nature

“Allen’s vivid depictions of the scientific community before and during the war and the treacherous parallel paths Weigl and Fleck traversed—gleaned in part from interviews with Holocaust survivors—are stirring. Considering all the energy channeled into mere survival, Allen’s book makes you wonder what pinnacles of research might have been achieved by now, if not for the march of war.” — Laura Fischer Kaiser, ScienceNews

“Wholly surprising and affecting.” — Jonathan Kirsch, Jewish Journal

“An extraordinary story of medical research amid horror…Unforgettable.” — George Makari, author of Revolution in Mind: The Creation of Psychoanalysis

“A combination of Microbe Hunters, Schindler’s List, and The Twilight Zone. I couldn’t put it down.” — Paul A. Offit, M.D.

“With masterful attention to detail, Arthur Allen has assembled a story of tragedy, courage, and scientific creativity. A fantastic laboratory, and a fantastic book.” — Nathan Guttman, Washington bureau chief, The Forward

“An outstanding history.” — Dr. Walter Orenstein, former director, National Immunization Program, CDC

“Allen is unflinching in his retelling of this monstrous era, but he manages to avoid writing a depressing narrative. Instead, Weigl, Fleck and their vaccines illuminate the inherent social complexities of science and truth and reinforce the overriding good of man. An unforgettable book.” — Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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