The German troops invaded Poland in September 1939 igniting the second world war. One fifth of the country’s pre-war population would die by the close of World War II in 1945. One specific community, however, would be spared of deportation, death and other war crime horrors due solely to the cleverness of two Polish doctors, Eugene Lazowski and Stanisław Matulewicz, who created a fictitious typhus epidemic and saved thousands.
Typhus has a long and infamous history. It has caused the death of many populations. Its involvement in World War II, however, is a bit more covert and indirect.
It began in World War I, when European microbiologists Arthur Felix and Edward Weil came up with a way to diagnose the disease and discovered another comparatively harmless bacteria, Proteus vulgaris. These bacteria, it was discovered, evoked bacteria- killing antibodies similar to that of the more dangerous disease. The bottom line, scientifically speaking is that Felix and Weil learned that blood samples from a typhus- infected person could look just like that of a person who is infected with Proteus. Both would test positive for typhus even though only one patient actually had typhus.
Doctors Lazowski and Matulewicz had been taught about the above-mentioned Weil- Felix test in medical school. In 1942, both specialists worked with the Polish Red Cross in the little town of Rozwadow, 150 miles south of Warsaw, in a district whose numerous residents were in facing the very real threat of being deported to various Nazi camps or worse actual execution by the German troops.
The pair of physicians put their heads together and came up with an ingenious trick to fool the Nazis and protect their fellow Polish citizens using what they had learned about the Weil-Felix test. Every feverish person that came to them seeking treatment was injected with dead Proteus vulgaris. Their blood samples were sent to labs, which were run by Germans, and the people were mistakenly declared to be infected with typhus. Soon it seemed as if everyone in the area had louse-born typhus.
For the most part, Germans had not truly been exposed to typhus for more than a quarter of a century. The Nazis had no natural immunity to it and they panicked. Knowing that typhus could cripple their world-conquering efforts, they were quite quick to quarantine the area as being infected with typhus.
The Germans were reportedly fooled for two years. The area was, for the most part, spared the oppressive actions of the German army. While there was one close call with a German scientific investigation, in the end the Germans were generally not taking any chances.
Doctors Lazowski and Matulewicz’ fake typhus epidemic succeeded ‘til the close of World War II. Doctor Lazowski would later discuss this event with the British Medical Journal. He stated:
“I was not able to fight with a gun or a sword but I found a way to scare the Germans.” While the bogus typhus outbreak was too late to save a lot of the Jewish people in the neighboring areas it did, however, spare the lives of approximately 8,000 Polish people due to the scientific inventiveness of Dr. Lazowski, Dr. Matulewicz and the microbiological oddity known as Proteus vulgaris.
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