Dr. Rudolf Weigl’s work on a vaccine for typhus during World War II saved countless lives, but his life-saving skills stretched beyond the reaches of the disease.
Weigl was a Polish biologist, physician and inventor best known for creating the first effective vaccine against typhus, a disease that spreads through body lice and has been responsible for millions of deaths throughout history. Along the way, he also provided shelter for Jews at risk of execution during the Holocaust.
To honor his achievement, Google will on Thursday dedicate its Doodle to the doctor on his 138th birthday.
Born in 1883 in the modern-day Czech Republic, Weigl graduated with a degree in biological sciences from Poland’s Lwów University in 1907 before going on to earn doctoral degrees in zoology, comparative anatomy and histology — the study of the microscopic anatomy of biological tissues.
As typhus ravaged Eastern Europe during World War I, Weigl was determined to stop it. After the discovery that typhus-infecting bacteria spread through lice, Weigl grew infected lice in his lab and harvested their stomachs to be mashed into a vaccine.
Weigl refined his technique over the years and began large-scale testing of the vaccine in 1933. It was during this time he got the disease himself but recovered.
During the German occupation of Poland in World War II, his work attracted the attention of the Nazis, who ordered Weigl to create a typhus vaccine production plant. To staff the plant, Weigl hired Jewish friends and colleagues, preventing them from being deported to Nazi death camps.
Thousands of doses of Weigl’s vaccine were also smuggled into the Jewish ghettos, concentration camps and Gestapo prisons. It’s estimated Weigl saved about 5,000 Jews from the Nazis.
He was nominated twice for the Nobel Prize for his invention of the typhus vaccine but was blocked both times due to the war and politics.
Weigl died in 1957 at the age of 74. Nearly a half-century later, he was honored in 2003 by Israel as a Righteous Among the Nations.