Zofia Weigl was a Polish biologist, inventor, and physician who was married to Rudolf Weigl, a fellow biologist and physician best known for inventing the first typhus vaccine.
On September 2, 2021, a Google Doodle of Rudolf Weigl was unveiled to honor his 138th birthday and his contributions to medical science. This caused a resurgence of public interest in him and his wife, Zofia Weigl. This article provides an overview of Zofia Weigl’s early life, education, career, and legacy, especially in regards to the development of the first effective typhus vaccine in the world.
Early Life of Zofia Weigl
Weigl was born Zofia Kulikowska in 1885 to Marta and Wiktor Kulikowska, who was a lawyer. She had three siblings named Stefania, Helena, and Wanda. She is Polish by nationality and Jewish by religion.
Zofia Weigl’s Education
Weigl passed her secondary school-leaving examination in a girls’ gymnasium in Lviv. Afterward, she went to the University of Lviv to finish a degree in biology. She was appointed as a teacher in a four-class folk school in Toszniow in the middle of 1912. Later, she earned a doctorate in biology from the University of Lviv and served as an associate professor at the same institution.
Zofia Weigl’s Career
Zofia and Rudolf Weigl met at the University of Lviv before they became scientific collaborators. They worked closely in the Lviv Institute for Study of Typhus and Virology in Kraków, Poland. They were married in 1921. Weigl was her husband’s closest associate and she contributed greatly to the research and preparation of the typhus vaccine.
Weigl was also the head of the Lviv branch of the Ladies of the House Association.
She gave birth to a son named Wiktor Weigl. One of Wiktor’s daughters, Krystyna Weigl-Albert, is currently working as a psychologist. Weigl lived with her husband and child in the tenement house of the Kulikowski family at 4 Wagilewicza Street in Lviv.
Weigl died sometime in 1940. The exact cause and date of Zofia Weigl’s death are not publicly known. Following her death, Rudolf Weigl married his assistant, Anna Herzig. There were speculations that Rudolf’s relationship with his assistant may have led to Zofia’s death.
Legacy of Zofia Weigl
Upon marrying Rudolf, Weigl began to immerse in the typhus vaccine research to which he had dedicated his life. Rudolf and Zofia Weigl were two of the earliest “lice- feeders”, humans who became sources of “food” (i.e., blood) for typhus-infected lice. Employing lice-feeders was crucial to developing possible vaccines against the disease.
Rudolf made his vaccine by growing healthy lice, infecting them with typhus, letting them grow more and finally extracting and grinding the lice’s midguts to make a paste. Lice-feeders like Zofia played an important role in growing the lice used to make vaccines. However, this method put the lice-feeders at risk of developing typhus. This vaccine was also hard to produce on a large scale. Later, a typhus vaccine developed using egg yolk became more popular and widespread. Nonetheless, Rudolf Weigl’s typhus vaccine is still credited as the world’s first effective vaccine against typhus. For his work, Rudolf Weigl was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Medicine between 1930 and 1934 and again in 1936 to 1939.
On November 9, 1931, Zofia Weigl was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta. This is a state order in Poland which is conferred to outstanding individuals with worthwhile contributions in the fields of education, science, sport, culture, art, economics, national defense, social work, civil service, and promoting good relations between countries.
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Conclusion: The Life of Zofia Weigl
Zofia Weigl played an important role in developing the typhus vaccine. As a dedicated biologist, she risked her life to help further the research on preventing typhus, a disease that led to hundreds of thousands of deaths in World War 2. However, there are more articles written about Rudolf Weigl and barely anything about his wife. So, in this age, it is important to write and read about women of science like Weigl because they deserve as much recognition as their male colleagues and collaborators.