Rudolf Weigl: The Polish Scientist Who Saved Lives with His Typhus Vaccine

Typhus is a deadly disease caused by bacteria that are transmitted by lice, fleas, or mites. It causes high fever, headache, rash, and sometimes delirium and death. Typhus was a major threat to public health in Europe and other parts of the world in the 19th and 20th centuries, especially during wars and famines. Many people died from typhus outbreaks, including famous figures such as Anne Frank and Napoleon Bonaparte.

However, thanks to the work of a Polish scientist named Rudolf Weigl, a vaccine against typhus was developed and used to prevent and control the disease. Weigl not only made a significant contribution to science and medicine, but also used his vaccine to save thousands of lives during the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II. He risked his own life to protect Jews, intellectuals, and resistance fighters from the Nazis, who used typhus as an excuse to kill or deport them. He was also a humanitarian who helped many people in need, regardless of their nationality or religion.

Who was Rudolf Weigl?

Rudolf Weigl was born on September 2, 1883, in Prerau, which was then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father died when he was young, and his mother remarried a Polish teacher. Weigl grew up in Jasło and Lviv (then Lwów), where he studied biology at the Lwów University. He became interested in typhus and its causes, and worked as a researcher at a military hospital in Przemyśl during World War I. He later became a professor at the Lwów University and the director of the Institute for Typhus and Virus Research.

Weigl devoted his life to studying typhus and developing a vaccine against it. He discovered that typhus is caused by bacteria called Rickettsia prowazekii, which live inside the gut of lice. He also found that the bacteria can be grown in chicken eggs or in live guinea pigs. He used these methods to produce a vaccine that could protect people from typhus by injecting them with weakened bacteria.

Weigl’s vaccine was the first effective vaccine against typhus, and it saved millions of lives around the world. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine several times, but never won it. He also received many honors and awards for his work, such as the French Legion of Honor and the Polish Order of Polonia Restituta.

How did Rudolf Weigl save lives during World War II?

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Weigl was in Lviv, which became part of the General Government under Nazi rule. The Nazis persecuted Jews, Poles, and other groups, and used typhus as a pretext to kill or deport them to concentration camps. They also imposed harsh living conditions that increased the risk of typhus outbreaks.

Weigl used his position as a respected scientist and a vaccine producer to save thousands of lives during this time. He employed many Jews and intellectuals in his institute, where they worked as researchers or technicians. He gave them certificates that exempted them from deportation or arrest by the Nazis, who feared getting infected with typhus from them. He also provided them with food, clothing, and shelter.

Weigl also secretly distributed his vaccine to Jews in ghettos and camps, as well as to members of the Polish resistance and underground organizations. He smuggled his vaccine out of his institute in various ways, such as hiding it in milk bottles or false-bottomed suitcases. He also trained some of his workers to produce the vaccine independently in hidden locations.

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Weigl’s actions saved an estimated 5,000 lives during World War II. He was recognized as a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem in 2003 for his heroic deeds.

What happened to Rudolf Weigl after World War II?

After World War II ended, Weigl moved to Kraków, where he continued his research at the Jagiellonian University. He also worked at the University of Poznań and founded the Institute of Microbiology there. He died on August 11, 1957, in Zakopane, at the age of 73.

Weigl’s legacy lives on today as one of the most influential and courageous scientists in history. His vaccine against typhus is still used in some parts of the world where the disease is endemic. His institute in Lviv is now named after him and houses a museum dedicated to his life and work. His story is also an inspiration for many people who value human dignity and compassion.


Rudolf Weigl was a Polish scientist who developed the first effective vaccine against typhus, a deadly disease that killed millions of people in the past. He also used his vaccine to save thousands of lives during the Nazi occupation of Poland in World War II, by employing and protecting Jews and intellectuals in his institute, and by secretly distributing his vaccine to those in need. He was a hero who risked his own life to help others, regardless of their background or beliefs. He was honored as a Righteous Among the Nations and nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine for his achievements and contributions. He is remembered today as one of the greatest and most noble scientists of all time.

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