THE FANTASTIC LABORATORY OF DR. WEIGL by Arthur Allen
Kirkus Star

THE FANTASTIC LABORATORY OF DR. WEIGL

How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis

KIRKUS REVIEW

The harrowing story of two brilliant immunologists, one Christian, one Jewish, who were separated during World War II yet found heroic ways to turn their typhus vaccine research against the Nazis.

In a twist of irony not lost on Allen (Ripe: The Search for the Perfect Tomato, 2010, etc.), Nazis were deathly afraid of lice. The little insects were known to carry typhus, a dreadful contagious disease that ravaged communities forced to live in subhuman conditions, including soldiers on the war front as well as inmates in concentration camps and ghettos. It therefore became a wartime imperative to eradicate the disease. In Poland, scientist Rudolf Weigl (1883-1957) and his assistant, Ludwig Fleck (1896-1961)—who would later write the seminal text The Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact—were both enlisted to develop a typhus vaccine: Weigl in the service of the German army and Fleck under SS guard at Buchenwald. Their stories, beautifully told within the devastating tumult of Poland's unfolding history, describe the war from a vivid perspective: that of the laboratory saboteur. Weigl secretly used his lab to smuggle vaccines to the Polish ghettos and recruited many intellectuals as lab workers, saving their lives. (Frequently, these respected thinkers would be hired as louse-feeders, letting the creatures feed on their own blood—a surreal scene.) Meanwhile, Fleck's lab was also a center of conspiracy, and his sabotage was even more dangerous and cunning: He produced a fake typhus vaccine for German troops and Nazi experimenters while sneaking real doses to desperate inmates. Both scientists risked terrible deaths to defend the idea of moral good despite the corruption, bloodshed and evil surrounding them. 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.

Pub Date: July 21st, 2014
ISBN: 978-0-393-08101-5
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Norton
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1st, 2014




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