A conversation with “Fantastic Lab” author Arthur Allen about typhus, “thought collectives,” and his odyssey through obscure medical archives and the Nazi claptrap.

On a recent Sunday morning, I sat down with Arthur Allen over coffee at Politics & Prose Bookstore in Washington, DC, to talk about his latest book, The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr. Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis. (Read my brief review in Science News.) The two scientists in the title are Polish zoologist Rudolf Weigl and Polish immunologist Ludwik Fleck. Allen had come across their work while researching his 2007 book Vaccine, and he was a fan of Fleck’s famous concept of “thought collectives” in the philosophy of science. Although their contributions to medicine didn’t even merit a footnote in his biography of modern immunization, he realized there was a bizarre intrigue in their strangely intertwined trajectories.



In the 1920s, Weigl created the first typhus vaccine, using an ingenious (and revolting) method that involved intrarectal inoculation of lice (yes, louse butts) with pureed louse guts engorged with human blood. Desperate for a steady supply of typhus vaccine, the Nazis conscripted his lab when they occupied Lwów, Poland. Gaining a slot at Weigl’s lab bench soon became a way for the intelligentsia to survive the war. The Jewish Fleck, however, was condemned to Buchenwald, where his early training under Weigl served him well. Ordered to produce a typhus vaccine, he and a ragtag team of prisoner “lab techs” performed a kind of kabuki science in a makeshift lab – and lived to tell about it.

Had this been a book solely about the discovery of a vaccine or about Nazi war crimes, that would have been interesting enough. But context is everything and one of the best things about Fantastic Lab is how Allen conveys the complexity of Jewish life in Lwów between the wars, how the European scientific community was warped by the Nazi’s medical claptrap (one of Allen’s favorite words), and how two men of science managed to hang onto their sense of humanity under horrific conditions.

Laura Fisher Kaiser: Even though Weigl’s lab is the leitmotif of the book, I sensed you almost wished you could have just focused on Fleck, whose writings provide a moral prism that gives deeper meaning to the narrative.

Arthur Allen: I think he’s a great man, I really do. People say his book [Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact] is difficult and I did have to read it a couple of times, but I found it exciting to be communicating his ideas. Science journalists have this important role in communicating science to other groups of people who aren’t specialists or even scientists. It’s not very easy to communicate what one specialty knows to another. It’s not just the facts written in an article. It’s also the experience and the training and the personal relationships of teacher to student and all the things that go on in science. As science journalists, it’s our job to get into the guts of how science works and throw that back out along with what tends to be just the headlines of scientific discovery.

LFK: I thought you did a great job of getting into the heads of how the Nazis went from eugenics to genocide, how they normalized this sick, perverted mindset, the crazy thinking of equating Jews with vermin to be exterminated.

AA: I was lucky to find this stash of personal papers that belonged to [sadistic Nazi doctor] Erwin Ding-Schuler. Some Belgian inmate at Buchenwald had picked them up after the Americans took Buchenwald. I’m not even sure anyone knows who it was. He dumped them in Brussels somewhere, then in the 1970s somebody brought them to this archive which is, well, it’s weird–it’s like part of the social security institute of Belgium. A very nice little archive in middle of an Arab neighborhood. This collection was dumped there and put behind a bunch of books. Then this archivist a few years ago found them and put a notice in their newsletter and the Buchenwald archive, and it was publicized. As far as I know, nobody has used it the way I did. It’s got all this stuff that reveals what he was like at the time. It’s a mishmash, a mixture of personal, daily business, holocaust related, and you’re not getting exactly the whole picture but it does shed some light on here was this guy doing these experiments, infecting people with typhus intentionally so that they could be carriers of the disease so you could infect other people to test vaccines. At the same time he’s writing these letters to his bosses about when is his name change going to come through so his daughter could avoid the embarrassment of having the name “Ding.” It’s just weird. But that’s where he was, the level he was operating and it was interesting to know.

LFK: So these papers were all in German, which you speak?

AA: Yes, I lived in Germany for two years working for AP. Polish is another matter. I did develop a friendship with a brilliant Polish sociologist named Izabela Wagner who had written a book she translated into English. So we made an arrangement, she did all this work for me, and I turned her book into English and she got it published. So it was very mutually helpful. Her book is coming out from Rutgers in year or two. Also, she was a sociologist who was interested in Fleck. She helped find papers and translated this stash of reel-to-reel tapes.

LFK: Cool. Where were those?

AA: There was this Polish journalist named Ryszard Wojcik and I found some of his articles were published in this groovy Polish monthly called Odra. He’d gotten obsessed with Weigl in the 1970s and ’80s. He was a television journalist who tried to make a documentary about Weigl and he could never get his editors over the hump of distinguishing between Weigl as a Nazi collaborator and a hero–he had to be one or the other. This guy was like, Hey, it was what it was. Yes, he was a collaborator, he was making vaccines for the Nazis. This was during the period when Solidarity was active, before the crackdown. We brought him into the deal, got him a grant from these Polish emigrants here in the states and he’s doing his own book in Polish. But he agreed to give us the tapes from these interviews with all of Weigl’s labmates who were still alive in ‘70s and ‘80s.

LFK: Wow. What a bonanza.

AA: Yes, and Izabela engineered that. She lives half a mile from Wojcik in Warsaw. He’s an amazing guy, with this house full of all this WWII memorabilia, pieces of tanks, shells, old metal. It’s like this hobbit house and we just drank vodka for hours on end.

LFK: How did you find all these people?

AA: It all started with Weigl’s protégé Dr. Waclaw Szbalski, [whom Allen describes in the book as “a stalwart of Weigl’s wartime laboratory…central to keeping alive his mentor’s accomplishments”]. He told me about this conference in Europe every couple of years that’s named for Weigl. Polish and Ukrainian scientists present these findings and there’s always this little historical section where somebody talks about Weigl and about the lab. It’s a way to bring Ukrainian scientists into the fold. Polish scientists are very integrated into European Union science now, and Ukraine is just starting to get there. It’s also a chance for these old guys to go back to Ukraine and look at their old houses and stuff, where they grew up and were kicked out.

So I went to one of these conferences in 2011 and met a lot of people there including Izabela Wagner. She had been interviewing Szbalski and these other Polish exiles because her work is about how scientists work differently in national cultures versus international cultures. There’s a certain relationship among the people in the labs in Poland where everyone is a Pole. And then there’s the international lab system which is like the lab system in the U.S. where you’ve got all kinds of people — Indian, Chinese, Russian, this, that, and there’s a different style. So that’s her interest.

LFK: It’s amazing that there’s this whole little world of people who are really into Weigl. Did that surprise you?

AA: Not exactly. It’s part of this wounded community of Poles who, well, there aren’t that many of them left. Poles were really ripped from these lands after World War II. They weren’t the only ones, of course, there were Germans who were ripped from their lands, usually with good reason usually, but after the war there was this ethnic cleansing that went on. Lwów had been a Polish city and is now Ukrainian city.

LFK: Lwów, L’viv How do you pronounce it?

AA: LehVOHV (Lwów) in Polish, LehVEEV (L’viv) in Ukraine.

LFK: What do you think is the chance that there might one day be a statue to Weigl in Lwów/L’viv?

AA: I think there will be one actually. Under the Soviets there was no recognition for any of these Polish activities. So there was this resurgence of interest in these people and Weigl is of course an important figure because he saved so many of them. Lwów is very Western oriented and as Ukraine gets further divided into East and West, I think the Western part will be more inclined to show its cosmopolitanism. I don’t know that for sure, of course, but I felt like Lwów could be the next Prague. It has incredible charm and it’s so cheap to go there now. You could totally see young people setting up shop there. But it’s not that easy to get to. Another couple of cheap flights and you could see it happening.

LFK: Ryanair’s next hub.

AA: Yeah, right. I ended up taking the train because I hate to fly and it was total pain in the ass. It’s a night train and they wake you up at the border. There’s an airline called Carpatair–which sounds like flying carpets, right?– but it’s like Carpathian Airlines. It flew from Munich through some Romanian city I never heard of to Lwów. I couldn’t see doing that, too scary.

LFK: Unfortunately, the two protagonists of your book died a long time ago. If you could have met them, what would you have asked them?

AA: First, what was your relationship like? I know that they had at least a tenuous relationship through the 1920s and that Weigl offered this protection but I don’t know anything about what they thought of each other, what it was like to work for Weigl in the early 1920s.

LFK: You say there is evidence that Weigl gave Fleck lab equipment at one point.

AA: Yes, it’s some of Fleck’s testimony at Yad Vashem [International Institute for Holocaust Research in Jerusalem]. He talks about getting vaccine from Weigl to start his own vaccine in the ghetto.

LFK: That’s the million dollar question – was Fleck producing a vaccine in the concentration camps? Did he pull it off or was it all smoke and mirrors?

AA: Here’s a big question overall from a scientific review: How well did any of these vaccines work? The best data in a way on Weigl’s vaccine comes from these reports from the German hygiene service of the German army. I read a lot of them but they were very spotty. Who knows how many more there were since the German Wehrmacht medical archives were heavily destroyed during the war from bombing. But I found enough of them to see that there was very meticulous reporting where they say well, our unit got vaccinated but they still got typhus, this one got vaccine, that one didn’t. You could see evidence that this data was collated in Berlin and they could see some good effect from Weigl’s vaccine. But it’s hard to say how much, it’s not really scientific.

LFK: Wasn’t Weigl also sending diluted batches to the front?

AA: Yes, but how much of it was diluted we don’t know. And were these officers just blowing smoke, it totally lacks anything that by today’s standards is worthy of scientific interest. But the same thing with Fleck. They said in their accounts that they made a small amount of vaccine, like 1% of what they were making was real vaccine and they gave it to people who were corpse haulers in the outer camp because there was not that much natural typhus at Buchenwald.

LFK: And then a lot of the people who got the vaccine were killed anyway so you have no way of knowing if it worked.

AA: Right. Obviously, there was this way that people thought it was valuable and lives were lost over it, lives were saved but how much good it did [he shrugs] that’s why it ends up becoming more of a Holocaust story than a science story. It’s sort of about where vaccines fit into this whole story of Nazi ideology and the significance that people gave to scientists and the respect that they earned just by their reputations. What they did was considered very important even if their accomplishments didn’t save the world from typhus.

LFK: What other ways did you track down this info?

AA: I did a search in PubMed for the name [Hermann] Eyer and I found one other guy, who was in Munich, which is where Eyer died after the war. Sure enough it was his son, Peter Eyer, who turned out to be very interested in talking to me. He showed me a lot of his father’s papers, which were very interesting. That was another little value-added thing. I stayed a night at his house, went through all these documents and talked about them.

LFK: It’s amazing that there are still these stashes of documents waiting to be discovered by historians and translators.

AA: The German accounts were so much easier to find than the Polish ones because the Germans kept impeccable records. Most of the accounts you read of the holocaust in English are only starting to come from sources brought in from the East. Most of these historians did not have Polish or Yiddish  or whatever, or those records were inaccessible. In Ukraine I basically gave up on getting anything there because the archives in Lwów is, well, for one thing, the hours are erratic, they show up whenever they show up. When you ask for something, it takes them a week to find it. The logistics seemed hellish. There are frustrations that go with it, but you do the best you can.

LFK: Part of what you’re doing is furthering a dialog.

AA: Once you get going, once you put something like this out, even the academics who might turn their nose up at it, will find that it helps them. It’s like what Fleck was talking about with thought collectives. Suddenly it’s out of the esoteric circle because some journalist has written about it, so that makes it more fashionable to do research on it and you have to show how the journalist missed everything. That’s totally fine. I want people to look at this more because I think it’s fascinating. It’s like every piece you do is just one piece. It’s like in journalism, you’re never totally at the bottom of the story.

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