Three Hundred Guts Per Hour

Hugh Pennington

The old university building in Lviv, now the site of the Biology Faculty

As a student at St Thomas’s I was taught medical microbiology by Ronald Hare, discoverer of important things about influenza virus, anti-flu vaccine pioneer, microbiological manager of the first penicillin factory in Canada (which started production just before D-Day), and investigator in 1947 of microbiological experiments done by the Nazis on concentration camp prisoners (about which he never spoke).

One of his lecture subjects was the Weigl typhus vaccine, made by the intrarectal inoculation of lice. Twelve-day-old lice were put in a clamp with their rears in the air. A very fine glass pipette was inserted into the anus and a tiny drop of fluid containing the typhus bacterium, Rickettsia prowazekii, was pumped in. Five days after infection the louse guts started leaking blood. The lice turned red. They were collected into a phenol solution and dissected under a microscope. The intestines were harvested and ground up with more phenol to make the vaccine.

These processes needed people: injectors, who could infect up to two thousand lice per hour; dissectors, who could harvest three hundred guts per hour; and feeders to propagate the lice, kept in cages strapped to their legs, men mostly on their calves and women usually on their thighs. The cages were kept in place by big elastic bands. Next to the skin was a muslin screen through which the lice took their blood meals. Infected lice were fed by people who had previously recovered from typhus.

Weigl’s Vaccine Institute was in Lviv. Until the Nazi-Soviet Pact, Lviv was in Poland, which had won the Polish-Ukrainian War in 1919. In Poland it was called Lwów. It was bombed by the Germans in early September 1939. After Molotov and Ribbentrop had agreed their pact, the Soviets moved in, on 20 September 1939. On 29 June 1941 the Wehrmacht invaded. The Germans called the city Lemberg, its name when it had been the capital of the province of Galicia in Austria-Hungary.

Weigl’s Institute was a place of refuge during the German occupation. Members of the Lwów school of mathematics worked as louse feeders. When stopped by Germans they would say: ‘I hope you have had typhus.’ The Germans would move on hurriedly. Before the war the mathematicians met regularly at Szkocka, the Scottish Café. One of them was Stanisław Ulam, who left for Harvard in 1936, joined the Manhattan Project in 1944, and along with Edward Teller is considered the inventor of the H-bomb.

Weigl was a professor at the University of Lwów Medical School. Ludwik Fleck was briefly his assistant in the early 1920s. In the years before the Second World War, Fleck ran a private diagnostic laboratory in Lwów. When the Germans invaded he was put into the ghetto. There was a typhus epidemic. Fleck developed a vaccine using the sterilised urine of typhus sufferers. He told the Germans it probably wouldn’t work for them because it was made from non-Aryan urine. In February 1943 he was transported to Auschwitz to work in the so-called Hygiene Institute of the SS, and in December he was transferred to its counterpart at Buchenwald, where he superintended the manufacture of vaccines made from the lungs of infected rabbits. Two kinds were made: small amounts of a high quality one for Fleck’s associates, and large amounts of a useless one for the Waffen SS.

Fleck’s most effective vaccines probably reduced lethality to a significant degree, but didn’t prevent symptomatic infection. Like Weigl’s they are only of historical interest, and Fleck is now celebrated not as a vaccinologist but as a brilliant pioneer in the sociology of science. His 1935 monograph Entstehung und Entwicklung einer wissenschaftlichen Tatsache (‘Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact’) is a classic.

No typhus vaccines are currently available. Antibiotics reduce typhus mortality by more than 90 per cent. Typhus these days is an uncommon tropical disease. The biggest worry is that it could be used as a biological weapon. The USSR is known to have done research on the topic.


  • 23 March 2022 at 4:11pm
    Michael Shapira says:
    New to the LRB blog. Is the short summary here is of a published book? The topic sounds fascinating and i would love to learn more. Thanks.

    • 24 March 2022 at 9:00am
      Thomas Jones (blog editor) says: @ Michael Shapira
      Not a summary of a book; fruits of a lifetime’s study. I see there was a book published a few years ago called ‘The Fantastic Laboratory of Dr Weigl: How Two Brave Scientists Battled Typhus and Sabotaged the Nazis’ by Arthur Allen.

  • 23 March 2022 at 7:01pm
    Paul Hubbard says:
    I recall seeing in the early 1970s a rather depressing Polish film (I have forgotten the title) featuring a man feeding lice in the way described above during the German occupation. At the time I did not realise that this had been a real practice.

  • 23 March 2022 at 7:43pm
    M f Naguib says:
    Weigl was instrumental in saving many Jewish lives during the Nazi occupation, by recruiting Jewish friends and acquaintances to work in his lab and by distributing the vaccine to the ghettos populations. However his vaccine was dangerous to produce and hard to make on an industrial scale. It was superseded by the Cox vaccine using the medium of egg yolks. Death from typhus , that used to be a major killer , was eventually eradicated by the tetracycline antibiotics, introduced in the 1950’s. Medical research before the introduction of antibiotics was focused mainly on producing vaccines to control various infections. But vaccine production nowadays have become much more sophisticated since the days of Weigl, thanks to our better grasp of DNA/ RNA architectural structures of microorganisms and our greater insight into the mechanisms of immunity.

  • 23 March 2022 at 9:44pm
    Bharat Bhanabhai says:
    Interesting read, but at the risk of nit picking is still known in India and China and an innoculation offered for those travelling there ... With a combined population of 3 billion - WHO decides that it is an uncommon tropical disease or do these non Aryan populations not count?

    • 24 March 2022 at 8:11am
      Thomas Jones (blog editor) says: @ Bharat Bhanabhai
      Is it possible you’re confusing typhus and typhoid? According to the WHO, typhoid infects between 11 and 20 million people a year, and kills between 128,000 and 161,000. It’s caused by a Salmonella bacterium and spread through dirty drinking water. There are vaccines available (to ‘travellers’, at any rate, as you say, if not to those most at risk).

      Typhus, on the other hand, which Hugh Pennington writes about here (Rickettsia prowazekii, spread by lice, vaccines no longer available), doesn’t warrant a page on the WHO website. The CDC call it a ‘rare disease’.

    • 25 March 2022 at 8:14pm
      Bharat Bhanabhai says: @ Bharat Bhanabhai
      Thomas Jones you are absolutely right. Typhus is a lousy affair. Thankyou for resolving that. A nit pick from a nit wit where more intelligence was required. Apologies.

  • 24 March 2022 at 6:19am
    Matt Gately says:
    Those lice and their anuses did more for humanity than Teller and Ulam ever did with their mathematical stupendousness.

  • 30 March 2022 at 2:10pm
    Lexa Hypatia says:
    The best cure for typhus was always prevention. In WWI, British troops had their clothes steam treated to kill the lice. No lice means no typhus.

  • 30 March 2022 at 2:14pm
    Lexa Hypatia says:
    Fleck's monograph is available for free download from the web: just Google the (English) title given here.

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