Google Doodle Celebrates Rudolf Weigl, Scientist Who Produced Epidemic Typhus Vaccine

The Google Doodle for today, September 2, celebrates the 138th birthday of Polish scientist Rudolf Weigl who developed the first effective vaccine against epidemic typhus—one of the oldest and most infectious diseases—during World War II.

Weigl developed a method that enhanced the technology of epidemic typhus vaccine production. According to a 2003 article from Przegląd Epidemiologiczny : "He was an international authority on prophylactics and control of rickettsial epidemic typhus."

The scientist introduced the first vaccination of medical staff, people from endemic areas in Poland and missionaries working in Asia.

Weigl was born in Prerov, Moravia and graduated from Lvov University in 1907 where he studied natural sciences. During World War I, he created the world's first effective vaccine against spotted fever.

Weigl continued his research around the spotted fever vaccine at the Institute of General Biology at Jan Kazimierz University in Lvov, the former Polish city which today is the Ukrainian city of Lviv.

A doctor examining a man for typhus.
A doctor examines a man aboard a ship for symptoms of typhus in May 1942. Bert Hardy/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He was the head of the institute, which was later known as the Weigl Institute, during the Soviet occupation of Lvov and after the city was captured by Germans.

In 1920, Weigl was appointed as professor of biology at Lwów University. His lab became world-renowned, "with frequent visits by the international community of Ricketsiologists, including Charles Nicolle, his collaborator Helena Sparrow from Tunis, Kuczynski from Berlin, and others."

As World War II approached, Weigl was drafted as a parasitologist at the Army Laboratory in Przemysl, Poland. He became interested in typhus, which was spreading through Eastern Europe at the time.

Szybalski, who knew Weigl well explained: "Before the era of vaccination and effective insect control, the louse-transmitted typhus was one of the major infectious diseases and a cause of disastrous epidemics," and Weigl produced "the first successful anti-typhus vaccine" at Jan Kazimierz University.

The vaccine was produced on a large scale in Weigl's laboratory before World War II in Lwów and was used in China, Ethiopia and other countries. Its production continued during World War II, when Lwów was occupied by the Soviet Union from 1939 to 1941 before being taken by Germany from 1941 to 1944.

According to the Polin Museum of the History of Polish Jews, after the end of the war, Weigl continued his research at the Jagiellonian University in Poland and retired in 1995.

He was nominated for a Nobel Prize twice, the first of which was in 1942, "but his nomination was blocked by the Germans in vengeance for his refusal to sign the Reichslist [a black list of those wanted for arrest by Nazi police, drawn up during the era of Adolf Hitler]."

His second nomination came in 1948 but he was prevented from being awarded the prize by "Communist authorities," , according to the museum's reports.

A body louse, carrier of epidemic typhus.
Morphological characteristics of the body louse (Pediculus humanus corporis), carriers of the epidemic typhus, trench fever, and relapsing fever, pictured in 1972. Centers for Disease Control/Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images