Proteus 0X19
Dianna Hasten

Proteus OX19 is an enteric bacterium that fooled the Nazis and saved the villages of Rozvadow and Zbydniowie in Poland. You may wonder how a tiny insignificant microbe saved so many people. If you were to view it under a microscope, you would consider it to be very non-special. But, looks can be deceiving!

Proteus organisms in general are grain - negative staining bacteria that carry out mixed acid fermentation and test positive in a methyl red test. Proteus is a flagellated, motile, facultative anaerobe that has straight rods and simple nutritional requirements. Proteus is a member of the Enterobacteriaceae family which are oxidase negative and have a G+C content of 38-60%. The cell morphology of the Enterobacteriaceae family are usually between.0.3-1.0 by 1.0-6.0 um.

What makes Proteus OX19 special is the antibodies that react to it. Antibodies to typhus cross react with Proteus OX19 and vice-versa. To diffuse this even more, it means that if you were infected with typhus, you would have antibodies that would react against both typhus and against Proteus OX19. This response is so clear and typical that pathology laboratories use this organism as a red flag for the diagnostic test for typhus. If a blood sample from a typhus victim is mixed with Proteus OX19 cells, the cells will clump. This is because the typhus antibody reacts with the Proteus OX19 cells.

The phenomenon of the dual response of antibodies was discovered in Poland during World War I and was termed the "Weil-Felix" reaction. Drs. Lazowski and Matulewicz, who had been taught about this response in medical school, took advantage of this characteristic and saved the towns of Rozvadow and Zbydniowie in Poland from the Germans during World War II. The motivation to use the bacterium in this manner came about when trying to save a comrade condemned to slave labour in Germany. The comrade was home on a two-week leave and desperate not to go back. They knew that it would require a serious disease, confirmed by a medical certificate, or suicide to remove their comrade from his circumstances. Otherwise, the comrade would be tracked down and thrown into a concentration camp.

The doctors knew there were serious side effects, but were desperate to save their comrade. So, the Proteus OX19 was injected into the comrades body; antibodies were generated by the comrades body; a blood sample was taken from him and sent to the German State Laboratory. The official verdict from the laboratory declared the comrade to be 'Weil-Felix positive'. The rouse had worked! This was more than they could hope for! The comrade was asked to stay home in Poland.

This worked so well that the doctors decided to see if, by injecting Proteus OX19 into others, they could convince Germany that they had an epidemic of typhus. Again, even though there were serious side effects, they began to inject people of their town. If it worked, their town would be left alone to survive! This can only be appreciated when you realize that one fifth of the entire population of Poland was murdered during world War II! The risk was more than worth it.

The outcome was spectacular! The injected victims blood was systematically submitted to the German lab for testing and was returned, again, 'Weil-Felix positive'. The Germans were convinced that an epidemic was on the move!

You may wonder how they pulled it off when Germany was normally so thorough. Germany did attempt to check the story out, but because there had not been an outbreak of typhus for over twenty-five years, they knew an outbreak would mean massive deaths for them. They were so apprehensive about typhus and the dreaded trench fever, that prisoners brought to the Auschwitz concentration camp were quarantined for 6-8 weeks and shot if there was any suspicion at all.

To conclude, the comrade, the towns Rozvadow and Zbydniowie and the dozen or so villages surrounding them were spared from the Germans. Years later, a reinvestigation was made of the saga by John Bennett, a surgeon at the British Military Hospital in Rinteln. It was concluded that the scam worked because, one, the Germans placed too much relevance on a simple test, two, they were so apprehensive about infection and three, hard liquor. Below is a quote from the official 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.

References: Dixon, Bernard. "Power Unseen, How Microbes Rule the World" W.H. Freeman and Company Limited. 1994.

*Disclaimer - This report was written by a student participaring in a microbiology course at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. The accuracy of the contents of this report is not guaranteed and it is recommended that you seek additional sources of information to verify the contents.

 

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