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Poland's Biological Defensive

Article #221 • Written by Cynthia Wood

Proteus bacteria (in green)
Proteus bacteria (in green)

Biological warfare is nothing new to the human race. Attempts to use disease to bring down enemies date as far back as we have detailed histories of warfare. Even when the mechanisms for the spread of disease were poorly understood, biological warfare was popular. Dropping cadavers into an enemy’s water supply was common. Some inventive Tartars even tried catapulting victims of bubonic plague over the walls of the city of Kaffa (modern day Feodesia) during a siege.

More recently, several European nations spread smallpox--inadvertently and otherwise--among Native Americans, and later attempted to use biological warfare to their advantage during the first World War. Only after World War I did the 1925 Geneva Protocol attempt to limit biological warfare, with mixed success.

In all this time however, every attempt at biological warfare has been essentially offensive. The idea has always been to incapacitate or kill the enemy. Except once, in Poland, during World War II, where a pair of quick-thinking doctors used a little-known organism to keep the Nazis at bay.

The microorganism is Proteus OX19. In most ways it’s an entirely ordinary little bacterium. Its one remarkable feature is that human antibodies for Proteus OX19 cross-react with the antibodies for Ricksettia – the bacterium responsible for the deadly disease typhus. Blood from a patient infected with Proteus Ox19 will give a false-positive in the most common typhus screening method, the Weil-Felix test.

Woodcut of plague victims
Woodcut of plague victims

Enter the Nazis into Poland. Two physicians, Drs. Lazowski and Watulewicz, were living in Poland in 1939 when the Nazis invaded and began deporting the population into concentration camps. When a young man condemned to slave labor in Germany appealed to them for help, the two doctors tried a unique deception. They injected him with Proteus and then sent a blood sample back to Germany for testing. The Weil-Felix test came back positive for typhus, and the young man was spared.

Encouraged by this success, the good doctors went on to try their ruse on a larger scale. Germany was rightfully alarmed at the idea of typhus. An epidemic originating in a camp could easily spread into the general German population. So Nazi officials started requesting broader blood tests, and they sent a medical team into the “afflicted” areas of Poland – the towns of Rozvadow and Zbydniowie, and several surrounding villages.

While the Polish doctors could, and did, inject a number of other people with Proteus to induce positive Weil-Felix results, an on-site Nazi medical team could well have proved their undoing. Fortunately, ingenuity and a good dose of hospitality and alcohol prevented them from being uncovered. From the British Medical Journal:

Nazi deputation consisting of an elderly doctor and two younger assistants was sent to investigate the results sent by Drs. Watulewicz and Lazowski. They were cordially received and in the traditional Polish manner given-food and vodka. The senior doctor did not personally inspect any of the village, but remained to be entertained, dispatching his Juniors. They made a cursory examination of the buildings but, being aware of the risks of infection, were easily dissuaded from closer inspection. An old man dying of pneumonia was brought in for the senior doctor and with much drama shown to be severely ill with, it was claimed, typhus fever. -As Goethe said, 'We see what we know.' They saw, were convinced and left.

With the medical team convinced, the Nazis left both towns and their surrounding villages alone, sparing them the ravages of the purges that killed a fifth of Poland's population by the end of the war. It was a tremendous triumph for the Polish doctors and, whether they realized it or not, their inventive tactic was unique in the annals of biological warfare.

Article written by Cynthia Wood, published on 25 September 2006. Cynthia is a contributing editor for DamnInteresting.com.

Article design and artwork by Alan Bellows. Edited by Alan Bellows.
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35 Comments
Mez
Posted 25 September 2006 at 07:57 am

Does Proteus OX19 cause any effects in humans, other than the anti-bodies of course? Is it contagious?


Shandooga
Posted 25 September 2006 at 08:00 am

Ok, I admit it, I don't have anything to say. But who can resist the chance to be 2nd on the list?


Chris
Posted 25 September 2006 at 08:04 am

Hmmmm. And what were the long term effects? Was this a one time incident, never repeated throughout the war? There must be a reason!


XJ076A
Posted 25 September 2006 at 08:09 am

well the thought of deception using bacteria is pretty interesting. if you could fool an enemy that easy today it'd be pretty easy to conquer.

not to mention it'd save millions of tax payers dollars

oh yeah... 4th! XD


just_dave
Posted 25 September 2006 at 10:10 am

Interesting. But I'd be hesitant to push a deception like this too far; if it had alarmed the Nazis too much, I could see them incinerating the "afflicted" villages to contain the spread of the disease.

But that's right; the Holocaust never really happened, so those Poles had nothing to fear from going to the camps those nice Nazis had prepared for them.


riquiscott
Posted 25 September 2006 at 10:26 am

Side note on Kaffa (modern day Froedosia) - - Historians agree that the bubonic plague had been ravaging most of Asia for at least 5 years prior to the conflict in Kaffa. Brought across the Silk Road, the Mongols used disease infected corpses as a means of "biological" warfare, catapulting the bodies over the defensive walls of the city. The Mongol army had already been decimated (1 in 10 dead or dying of the disease) prior to this last ditch onslaught. This truly was a last ditch effort. The occupying force in Kaffa had witnessed the ravages of the disease and chose wisely (but ultimately wrongly) to beat feet, loading 12 Genoese trading vessels and fleeing. Stopping first in Constantinople (now Istanbul - - and bonus points for anyone who gets the pop culture reference there) than continuing on to Europe. Herein begins the great single-site versus multi-site infiltration debate (did the 12 ships all make for one port or did they split up in the Med and make for different ports?) I support the multi-site infiltration theory but which ever side you back, the results are the same - the year was 1347 and the result was the beginning of one of the deadliest "modern" pandemics in Europe. Reports vary greatly estimating between 1/4 and 2/3 of the population obliterated by the Black Death. Due to sketchy records we may never know the true impact (although at this point it must be noted, the plague was not ENTIRELY to blame - western Europe had just experienced a period meteorological instability causing widespread famine and generally weakening the constitution of the survivors of the famine, priming them for an opportunistic infection.) Entire villages were wiped from the maps of Europe. I provide this information (not just to show off my geek gene, but that too) to demonstrate that an argument can be made that biological warfare has far-reaching and often unpredictable consequences. Do you think that the Mongols could have known that their last ditch effort to retake Kaffa by means of biological warfare would result in the horrendous death and loss we now call the Black Death? I, personally, think not. Despite the bloody and oft times vengeful nature of war, I think if one had knowledge that an action would result in the loss of upwards of 25 million lives, one would show restraint in pursuing that action.

On the upside (yeah there sort of is an upside) the Black Death did not provide for just human morbidity but rather was also the death knell for a way of life - manorialism (also called feudalism.) With the high loss of life among all classes (noble, knight, priest and serf alike) the hardest hit was the serf (probably because there were more of them and they tended to have a less hygienic lifestyle - - although no one in the Middle Ages was what someone truly modern would call 'clean' - - as well as being huddled into closer confines than other classes, thus enabling the spread of fleas, bacterium, etc.) With fewer serfs available to do the work, serfs, rather than being bound to their manor house lands, could now take offers from other nobles, knights and priests to work their lands, setting up a nascent "free market" system and ushering in capitalism (in a very liberal interpretation of the idea.)

So to sum up:
Biological warfare - bad, far-reaching effects, unpredictable
Black Death - bad, horrible, catastrophic, face of the Earth changing repercussions
Black Death - good, aids in the elimination of manorialism (feudalism) and ushers in capitalism (okay, a "yeah" only if you are not a Marxist, lol)

Sorry for the length, I got carried away as I always do when someone says "plague."


HarleyHetz
Posted 25 September 2006 at 10:28 am

DI Cynthia!! Good job.

It boggles the mind that these guys could come up with this off the cuff like that and prevent their village and the surrounding villages from being plundered!! I'm sure we each would like to imagine that we could think that fast "on our feet" but you never really know until you are put to the test! My proverbial hat is off to the good doctors!! :)


orc_jr
Posted 25 September 2006 at 11:04 am

as clever as this idea was, i'm frankly surprised that it worked so well. one would expect that the nazi doctors would at least have conducted some further blood testing, rather than saying "yup, they look sick alright" and going home.


Anthony Kendall
Posted 25 September 2006 at 12:13 pm

Riquiscott,
Thanks for an awesome DI comment!


howlinhobbit
Posted 25 September 2006 at 12:40 pm

riquiscott said: "Stopping first in Constantinople (now Istanbul - - and bonus points for anyone who gets the pop culture reference there)"

You're no doubt referring to They Might Be Giants covering the song "Istanbul (not Constantinople)" in 1990. It was first recorded by The Four Lads on August 12, 1953. Jimmy Kennedy and Nat Simon penned the tune.

Bette Midler has also cut a cover of it... in 1977, before They Might Be Giants.

I know all this crap about the song because one of my friends is the son of one of the Four Lads.

Can I have my bonus points in Krugerrands? Thanks.

DI article too!


riquiscott
Posted 25 September 2006 at 01:10 pm

howlinhobbit said: "Can I have my bonus points in Krugerrands? Thanks."

Correct answer!

Sorry ... poor middle school teacher here. You'lll have to take your bonus like everyone else - either 3 points added to your next quiz grade or a handfull of M&M's.

Anthony Kendall - thanks for the compliment.


1c3d0g
Posted 25 September 2006 at 06:54 pm

Woah! That is awesome. Quick thinking doctors indeed. Go Poland! :-D


Drakvil
Posted 25 September 2006 at 07:00 pm

Cynthia: DI! Good job!

Riquiscott: Very informative, thank you.

I love stories where people win out by using their intelligence... I guess that's why I like Numbers, Eureka and The Pretender so much.


alekk
Posted 26 September 2006 at 07:15 am

One of my grandfather "war stories", was how he got free from german hands because of "typhus".

He told that Germans was so scared of typhus, that nobody want to have any contact with sick person.


Dave Group
Posted 26 September 2006 at 11:17 am

As much as I know about WWII, I had never heard of this story. Hats off the riquiscott and howlinhobbit for the bonus info, too. Without the Internet, I never would have known this stuff.


Brian Carnell
Posted 26 September 2006 at 12:14 pm

"More recently, several European nations spread smallpox–inadvertently and otherwise–among Native Americans..."

Is there any actual evidence that Europeans intentionally spread smallpox? Assertions of intentional spread of small pox are very common -- for example, George Washington apparently accused the British of intentionally spreading smallpox which led to the epidemic during the Revolutionary War. Oddly enough, the Americans unintentionally spread the disease to Native Americans during the Revolutionary War when Indians fighting on the British side would take uniforms from dead American soldiers, most of whom had been exposed to smallpox from an epidemic that broke out starting around 1775.


denmar
Posted 26 September 2006 at 03:13 pm

Brian Carnell said: "Is there any actual evidence that Europeans intentionally spread smallpox?"

I grew up in the mountains of NC and heard many a story told about how the white man tricked the Cherokee and other tribes with gifts of blankets intentionally infected with small pox. I do not have 'text book' proof nor is there any mention on the official Cherokee website. However here are a few articles that discuss these incidents.

http://english.ohmynews.com/articleview/article_view.asp?menu=c10400&no=232087&rel_no=16&back_url=

http://www.thefurtrapper.com/indian_smallpox.htm

http://www.snowwowl.com/vwtrailoftears.html


denmar
Posted 26 September 2006 at 03:14 pm

Captain Blowhard
Posted 26 September 2006 at 03:52 pm

Ok , I have been hoping I would keep quite. But I cant ...
As far as UFO's or flying saucers are concerned. I cant bear for people to de-bunk the possibility in such an off-hand way . Yeah , Yeah , give me the "There's no evidence" nonsense.
Simply put , if you really think that then you are meatheads.
There is MASSES of evidence. Pictures , film footage and eyewitness accounts.
And you can say that they are hoaxers , loonies or seeking attention.

However , I have never seen a dolphin before in my life, Should I then discount peoples stories of swimming with them. Or poo-poo the films of them as fakes ?
Should I never believe they exist until I have a chunk of Dolphin meat in my hands ?
Is that what it will take to convince you ?
I hope for all your sakes (The Cynics) you dont ever see one or more with your own eyes.
Its not pleasant for everything that you believe is truth or reality to come crashing down in an instant .

But maybe then you might start to question what the truth is , rather than wearing blinkers.
Lets face it , If you have lived in a big city all your life and you work all the time . Your chances of EVER seeing something in the skies you cant explain are virtually nil.

WOW, My rant is over. Back to the subject !

Great story ! I have never heard of this and I enjoyed it . I love reading the comments too , they make up 50% of the site in my opinion .
There is nothing like a good debate especially when there are clearly some very intelligent individuals taking part !
Keep up the good work guys !


Captain Blowhard
Posted 26 September 2006 at 03:53 pm

damn , wrong story ..... oops ,,,, ignore that


Dustin Barbour
Posted 27 September 2006 at 12:32 am

riquiscott said: "The Mongol army had already been decimated (1 in 10 dead or dying of the disease) prior to this last ditch onslaught."

Cheers on knowing the TRUE meaning of the word "decimated!" Decimation was a Roman punishment for an under-performing army. They would, in fact, line soldiers up, count off every tenth man and kill him. Talk about incentive to perform!


EpilepticMoose
Posted 27 September 2006 at 06:45 am

riquiscott said: "Constantinople (now Istanbul - - and bonus points for anyone who gets the pop culture reference there)"

The song is: Istanbul (not Constantinople)

Well, I was initially going to say They Might Be Giants wrote this song, but apparently I am wrong: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Istanbul_(Not_Constantinople). However, the TMBG version is the only one I have heard, and it is awesome!!


sulkykid
Posted 27 September 2006 at 07:48 am

"EpilepticMoose" ???!!!!!!


bl2ittany_marie
Posted 27 September 2006 at 04:29 pm

i once met a holocaust survivor who told the nazis at dachau that he'd been a cook previously- you can't starve if you work in a kitchen! (haha, i went up to shake his hand later- our class had been lou dand disrespectful; and shocked him from static buildup from the chairs in our auditorium! poor guy.)

genius- the polish tactic.

in a crude way, ww2 was natural selection for the people who ended up under hitler's little ethnic cleansing program.


bl2ittany_marie
Posted 27 September 2006 at 04:30 pm

wow that sounded bad. but i was talking with a friend the other day about how the isrealites are fighting machines, and he brought that up. since only the smartest, meanest and toughest survived- no wonder!


nukebass
Posted 27 September 2006 at 10:18 pm

If would exist a "Clever Nobel" prize, these doctors really would deserves it!

Btw, my first post here... cheers from Brazil! :-)


animal
Posted 28 September 2006 at 08:19 am

Dustin Barbour said: "Cheers on knowing the TRUE meaning of the word "decimated!" Decimation was a Roman punishment for an under-performing army. They would, in fact, line soldiers up, count off every tenth man and kill him. Talk about incentive to perform!"

In general I believe decimation was used mostly when a large group of soldiers were recaptured after having gone awol or for mutiny type offenses. Either a "random" person would be selected per 10 or as you say by counting off one at every 10. Then more often that not the other 9 would have to stone that 10th man, thereby providing that extra bit of incentive for sticking with the army.

In the context of the comment decimation didn't really fit in. Saying that an army has been decimated and then went on to the last ditch onslaught is a bit odd since having lost only 1 in 10 men they should still have been doing relatively well. Most likely if read from a more modern description it would have meant the modern equivalent of "To destroy or kill a large part of (a group)".


Tink
Posted 30 September 2006 at 08:58 pm

Wow this is DI! Love all the comments too. Am surprised that no one LOL'ed the link in Cynthia's article though: "Buy Plagues and Poxes on Amazon.com " (And it wouldn't surprise me if you could not find a few on Ebay for sure. Ha!) I do wonder, how did people "launch the bodys of black death victims to the enemy" with out reinfecting the whole army? Talk about your yucky work detail! Makes peeling tators look pretty silky.


Cynthia Wood
Posted 02 October 2006 at 02:28 pm

Thanks, Tink. The Tartars simply used catapaults to launch the bodies over the city walls. On the good side, there were probably very few people infected by doing the loading - for the same reason it probably wasn't the bodies that spread the plague into Kaffa. The fleas that spread plague abandon a dead body pretty quickly, and bubonic plague does not generally spread human to human. More likely Kaffa was infected by infected rats getting through the walls in their own way.

I agree, I'd rather peel taters anyway.


Dottie1985
Posted 02 October 2006 at 03:40 pm

I totally agree with Captain Blowhard's "rant"...just wanted to let the cynics know...


Dottie1985
Posted 02 October 2006 at 03:42 pm

Ok so I had to let the cynics know that I agree with Captain Blowhard's "rant"...

oh and if I already sent a comment saying pretty much the same thing...sorry bout the repeat...my pc froze up on me!


tfeasel
Posted 25 October 2006 at 10:52 pm

Years ago I had a Proteus infection. I was given a myriad of atibiotics.


Scharneeigh
Posted 01 November 2006 at 09:00 pm

Captain Blowhard said: "Ok , I have been hoping I would keep quite. But I cant …

As far as UFO's or flying saucers are concerned. I cant bear for people to de-bunk the possibility in such an off-hand way . Yeah , Yeah , give me the "There's no evidence" nonsense.
Simply put , if you really think that then you are meatheads.
There is MASSES of evidence. Pictures , film footage and eyewitness accounts.
And you can say that they are hoaxers , loonies or seeking attention.

However , I have never seen a dolphin before in my life, Should I then discount peoples stories of swimming with them. Or poo-poo the films of them as fakes ?
Should I never believe they exist until I have a chunk of Dolphin meat in my hands ?
Is that what it will take to convince you ?

Captain Blowhard (is there a little innuendo in that name? My friend's nickname is "The Vacuum" lol but slightly offensive) AAAAAAAaanywho, I have seen a dolphin, swum with dolphins, and fed a dolphin very very stinky fish. Just to give you some confidence in the existence of dolhins. they smell bad. Also, i believe that aliens exist! (I'm not like you guys...) And i also believe that i have seen one. Yeah, that's right!


elphaba
Posted 07 January 2009 at 04:10 pm

I love it when the good guys fight dirty.


MacAvity
Posted 20 October 2009 at 04:18 pm

nukebass said: "If would exist a “Clever Nobel” prize, these doctors really would deserves it!"

Indeed there should be a Nobel Prize in Cleverness. Cleverness is something of which the world has a lot already but could use even more, and it frequently has incredible effects.

As to the article, my great-aunt got an extra ration of butter because she tested positive for tuberculosis in Nazi-occupied Holland. I don't think anybody infected her with fake tuberculosis though. And it didn't stop the Nazis from living in her home.


END OF COMMENTS
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