Medical history: WWII, vaccines, and my grandfather

My parents recently cleaned our my grandmother’s garage, and found a stash of family photos and other memorabilia that my father didn’t even know existed.  We were looking them over during a cook-out on the recent holiday weekend–there were several fascinating things, including buttons from an ancestor’s WWI uniform (and a picture of him in said uniform).

There was also my grandfather’s immunization record from his service in WWII:



I know extremely little about “Pa’s” time spent in the army; I think he was in the Pacific Theater at some point.  He never talked about it, and I’m not sure my dad even knows all that much.  But I do know he was proud of his service, and when he passed away a few years ago, he wanted to be buried in area of the cemetery reserved for veterans.

Pa received vaccines for smallpox, typhoid, typhus, tetanus, cholera, and “inf,” which is presumably influenza.  He also apparently did not receive yellow fever, and the form does not mention his glasses.

Looking at the dates of the vaccines, it’s not surprising that he got multiple doses of nearly every one.  That’s how many vaccines work; sometimes in stimulating an immune response to a pathogen, it takes multiple doses of the weakened or inactivated pathogen, or a booster shot later, to build up a sufficient response.

What is interesting, though, is some of the dates of the doses.  Why, for example, did he get two doses typhoid of only 6 days apart? Why did he get typhus and cholera years after he had started his other vaccinations? Was he changing locations in between some of these shots?  And notice the last ones are dated 1946–after the war ended.

I myself have been vaccinated for many diseases, including tetanus, hepatitis A and B, typhoid, yellow fever, and HPV (aka Gardasil).  Some of these are due to my trip to Ecuador seven years ago.  I am now a pro at getting shots.  Basically, the only other vaccines I could need would be rabies (for some types of animal work) and shingles when I get older (because I actually had chickenpox, not the vaccine).  Of course, I will continue to get boosters for things like tetanus, etc.

Some diseases from my grandfather’s list are noticeably absent from mine: smallpox, which has been eradicated (yet is still popping up in the weirdest places…), cholera (the vaccine for which is not even available in the US currently), and typhus.

Typhus is in many ways a quintessential wartime disease.  The bacteria that causes it is transmitted by body lice, and so epidemics break out when lots of unhygienic people are grouped together, like refugees or soldiers.

The typhus vaccine was relatively new during the Second World War.  Interestingly, one of the first men to try to make a vaccine (by grinding up infected lice) was a Polish scientist named Rudolf Weigl in the 1930s.  Under Nazi occupation in the 1940s, Weigl was ordered to set up a vaccine production plant, which he did, and then employed and protected many Polish Jews and intellectuals, and smuggled his vaccine into Polish ghettos.

A better method of vaccine production was later pioneered by H.R. Cox, and the vaccine itself has been rendered fairly unnecessary by better antibiotic treatments and widespread use of pesticides to control lice (such as DDT).

Working in medial research, this kind of stuff is fascinating to me.  And being a nerd, history in general is always fascinating to me.  But I’ve always believed that history becomes more meaningful when we make a personal connection to people in the past and their stories.  That’s exactly what my grandfather’s immunization record did for me.  Typhus isn’t just a wikipedia article anymore.  It’s part of my grandfather’s story, and therefore part of my own.