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Rudolf Weigl: A Polish Hero Who Invented a Vaccine and Saved Thousands of Lives

Rudolf Weigl was a Polish biologist, physician, and inventor who is best known for creating the first effective vaccine against epidemic typhus, a deadly disease that was widespread during World War II. He also used his vaccine to protect and rescue thousands of Jews, intellectuals, and resistance fighters from the Nazi persecution. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine several times and was honored as a Righteous Among the Nations in 2003. In this blog post, I will tell you more about his life, his work, and his legacy.

Early Life and Education

Rudolf Weigl was born on September 2, 1883, in Prerau, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father died in a bicycle accident when he was a child, and his mother remarried a Polish secondary-school teacher. He grew up in Jasło, Poland, and adopted the Polish language and culture. He graduated from the biology department at the Lwów University in 1907, where he studied under Professors Benedykt Dybowski and J. Nusbaum-Hilarowicz. He became Nusbaum’s assistant and completed his habilitation in 1913. He then received his doctorate degrees in zoology, comparative anatomy, and histology.

Military Service and Typhus Research

After the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Weigl was drafted into the medical service of the Austro-Hungarian army and began research on typhus and its causes. He worked at a military hospital in Przemyśl, where he supervised the Laboratory for the Study of Spotted Typhus from 1918 to 1920. He discovered that typhus was transmitted by lice that carried the bacteria Rickettsia prowazekii. He also found that guinea pigs could be infected with typhus and used them as experimental animals. In 1919, he became a member of a military sanitary council in the Polish army.

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Vaccine Development and Production

After the war, Weigl continued his research on typhus at an institution in Lwów. He developed a method to grow Rickettsia prowazekii in the guts of lice by feeding them infected blood. He then extracted the bacteria from the lice and killed them with heat or formaldehyde. He tested the vaccine on himself and his colleagues and found that it induced immunity against typhus without causing serious side effects. He patented his vaccine in 1934 and began mass production in 1936. His vaccine was widely used by the Polish army and civilians to prevent typhus outbreaks.

Humanitarian Actions During World War II

After the invasion of Poland by Germany in 1939, Weigl’s institute was taken over by the Nazis, who wanted to use his vaccine for their own soldiers. However, Weigl managed to keep some control over his production and secretly distributed his vaccine to the Polish underground and the Jewish ghettos. He also employed many Jews and intellectuals who faced persecution by the Gestapo as workers or researchers in his institute, thus saving them from deportation or execution. He also provided them with food, medicine, and false documents. He even smuggled some of them out of Lwów with the help of his contacts. It is estimated that he saved about 5,000 lives during the Nazi occupation.

Postwar Life and Recognition

After the war, Weigl moved to Kraków, where he became a professor at the Jagiellonian University. He also worked at the University of Poznań until his retirement in 1951. He died on August 11, 1957, in Zakopane, Poland. He was buried at the Rakowicki Cemetery in Kraków.

Weigl’s work and achievements were recognized by many awards and honors, both during his lifetime and after his death. He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine several times between 1930 and 1939. He received honorary doctorates from several universities and was a member of various scientific societies. He was also awarded several medals by the Polish government and other organizations.

In 2003, he was posthumously named a Righteous Among the Nations by Yad Vashem for his humanitarian actions during World War II. In 2004, he was honored with a Google Doodle on his birthday. In 2014, he was featured on a Polish postage stamp. His life story has been told in several books, documentaries, and exhibitions.


Rudolf Weigl was a Polish hero who invented a vaccine against epidemic typhus and saved thousands of lives from the Nazi persecution. He was a brilliant scientist who made important contributions to microbiology and parasitology. He was also a courageous and compassionate human being who risked his own life to help others. He deserves to be remembered and celebrated as one of the greatest figures in the history of medicine and humanity.

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