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Hirszfeld, Ludwik

(1884–1954), bacteriologist and serologist, creator of the Polish school of immunology. Ludwik Hirszfeld was born in Warsaw and studied medicine at the universities of Würzburg and Berlin, where he was graduated with highest honors in 1907. He then obtained a post at the Institute for the Study of Cancer in Heidelberg. Following his groundbreaking work, he transferred to the Institute of Serology, where in 1910 in collaboration with Emil von Dungern he demonstrated the hereditary factors of different blood groups. In 1911, he became a professor in the department of hygiene at the University of Zurich. During World War I he was in Serbia, where he organized efforts to combat a typhoid epidemic and discovered paratyphoid C. He was awarded honorary citizenship for his work by the king of that country.

In 1920, Hirszfeld returned to Poland, where he was appointed director of the Warsaw Institute for Producing Vaccines. He helped to organize the National Institute of Hygiene, with which he remained associated until 1939. In 1924, he was made an honorary professor at the Free University in Warsaw and in 1931 was awarded a professorship at the University of Warsaw. He was an editor of the periodical Medycyna Doświadczalna i Społeczna (Experimental and Social Medicine) and a cofounder of Warszawski Czasopismo Lekarski (Warsaw Medical Journal). He collaborated with his wife Hanna in all his scientific work; their discoveries laid the basis for seroanthropology, for which Hirszfeld was awarded honorary doctorates after the war in Prague and Zurich.

Hirszfeld converted to Christianity in 1920 when he returned to Poland. He always explained this step on the grounds that since Catholicism was the religion of Poland, he needed to convert if he was fully to identify with the country. It is not clear to what degree he was a practicing Catholic—those who knew him after the war have claimed he was not. Nevertheless, Hirszfeld and his family were confined to the Warsaw ghetto in February 1941 along with other converts. He lived in the presbytery of All Saints’ Church on Grzybowski Square and continued his scholarly work and also lectured at courses on the prevention of epidemics and to fourth- and fifth-year medical students. He was able to escape from the ghetto in 1943 and was hidden on the “Aryan” side. He described his wartime experiences in his memoirs, Historia jednego życia (The History of One Life; 1956).

In 1944, Hirszfeld went to Lublin, where the Polish Committee of National Liberation (in effect, a provisional government) had been established. He assisted in organizing the Marie Curie Skłodowska University there and became head of the department of microbiology. In 1945, he moved to Wrocław, where he was one of the founders of the medical school. In 1954, he became director of the first medical institute under the patronage of the Polish Academy of Sciences, the Institute of Immunology and Experimental Therapy. He also founded a research center in Wrocław for the pathology of pregnancy. He received many state distinctions and served on a number of official bodies, including the Scientific Council of the Ministry of Health.

Suggested Reading

Grzegorz Fedorowski, Ludwik Hirszfeld (Warsaw, 1985); Hanna Hirszfeldowa, Andrzej Kelus, and Feliks Milgrom, Ludwik Hirszfeld (Wrocław, 1956); Marek Jaworski, Ludwik Hirszfeld: Sein Beitrag zu Serologie und Immunologie (Leipzig, 1980).