Waldemar Haffkine: Pioneer of plague vaccine and the "Little Dreyfus Affair"

This Kat was recently reviewing a book on IP in India, here, during which he came across a reference to the Haffkine Institute located in Mumbai (Bombay). This sounded like a most non-Indian family name, and it led this Kat to ask: what is this Institute, who was the individual named Haffkine, and what was he doing in India? In searching the answers, this Kat became aware of one of one of the great bacteriologists/microbiologists of the late 19th and early 20th century, but whose name is largely unknown today. No less than Sir Joseph Lister is reported to have called Haffkine “a savior of humanity.” The account of Waldemar Mordechai Wolff Haffkine recalls one of the exemplars of the heroic first generation of modern bacteriologists, where medical researchers were willing to put their own bodies on the line, a tale from the Ukraine to Paris to London to Mumbai to London to Calcutta to Paris to the Soviet Union to Lausanne, against the backdrop of a medical scandal that still reverberates.

Haffkine was born in 1860 in what is today part of the Ukraine. There, he studied in Odessa with Ilya Mechnikov, sometimes called one of the fathers of immunology (who would share the Nobel Prize with Paul Ehrlich in 1908). But those were unsettled times in Russia, especially if you were Jewish. Haffkine himself had been injured in a pogrom against Jews, for which he ironically was imprisoned for a brief time. He was denied a position at the university since he had refused to convert to the Russian Orthodox Church.

In the face of these challenges, Haffkine emigrated to Geneva in 1888. A year later, he joined Mechnikov and Louis Pasteur at the newly created Pasteur Institute in Paris, initially as a librarian. Only later, in the early 1890’s, Haffkine was able to engage in practical bacteriology. About that time, Europe and Asia were undergoing the scourge of a cholera pandemic. Haffkine sought to develop a vaccine against cholera by producing an attenuated form of the bacterium. But how to test the vaccine? Haffkine decided that there was no better trial patient than himself. While the results for the efficacy of the vaccine were positive, the reception was underwhelming by certain members of the European medical establishment.

Undeterred, Haffkine decided that India would be a suitable place for further testing. He first was able to show his vaccination in England, which paved his way to India in 1893. There, in October 1896, he found himself amidst an outbreak of bubonic plague that had struck Mumbai. Finding a vaccine for bubonic plague had proven to be more difficult than for cholera. Once again, Haffkine developed a test vaccine that worked by using a small amount of the bacteria to engender an immune reaction. Once again, Haffkine used himself as an experimental patient. For his work, Queen Victoria named him in 1897 a Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire. It was the first of a number of awards that he received over his lifetime.

In 1899, Haffkine established the Plague Research Institute in Parel in Mumbai, which in 1906 was renamed the Bombay Bacteriology Laboratory and later, in 1925, the Haffkine Institute. By that time, however, Haffkine had long left India, and with it, the bitter-sweet legacy of having been a pioneer developer of a vaccine for bubonic plague, while being the center of a highly visible incident that went to the heart of his immunological efforts and appears to have haunted him the rest of his life.

The event in question was the death in October 1902 of 19 people located in Mulkowal in Punjab, all of whom had been inoculated with the anti-plague vaccination. Haffkine was suspended without pay from his position. Commissions and inquiries followed, both in India and England, as Haffkine sought to clear his name from the claim that the source of the contamination had been in Mumbai. In considering these events, one gets the sense that Haffkine was being deemed "guilty until proven innocent". It was only in 1907, after a protracted struggle culminating in the publication of a letter published in the Times and signed by Nobel laureate Sir Ronald Ross and nine other bacteriologists, that the matter reached the full light of day. The conclusion of Ross and the other signatories was that the case against Haffkine was “distinctively disproven”, stating that, as quoted in "Biography of Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine, here)--
“…there is very strong evidence to show that the contamination took place when the bottle was opened at Mulkowal [the village where the deaths occurred], owing to the abolition by the Plague authorities of the technique prescribed by the Bombay laboratory and to the consequent failure to sterilize the forceps which were used in opening the bottle, and which during the process were dropped to the ground.”
(A detailed account of these events is provided by Barbara J. Hawgood, here.)

Haffkine was soon thereafter exonerated. Some called this incident the “Little Dreyfus Affair” (here, for Dreyfus Affair), suggesting that Haffkine’s Jewish background played a role in the handling of the accusations against him. While it does not appear that anti-Semitic motivations played an overt role, at least as reflected in the official record, the issue is still debated. In any event, by the time that Haffkine returned to India, the position at the Institute was occupied and so he moved to Calcutta, where he was appointed the director of the Biological Institute there, reportedly warmly welcomed by the local Indian staff, less so by his English colleagues. He retired in 1914 and returned to France. Before doing so, as described by Barbara Hawgood:
“… Haffkine described the history of anticholera vaccines (both living and devitalized) and subsequent testing in the field. In a second monograph he detailed the history of his use of the antiplague vaccine during the incubation stage of the disease and its subsequent application to other infectious diseases. In these monographs Haffkine sought to safeguard his right to be the first person to undertake prophylactic inoculation in man.”
Haffkine later tried to reconnect with his homeland, now being the Soviet Union, but he could not adjust. Eventually, he moved to Lausanne, where he died in 1930. In his later years, with the zenith of his professional accomplishments far behind him (as he himself wrote—"the work at Bombay absorbed the best years of my life ….”) and the sting of the Mulkowal incident apparently still with him, he became active in various Jewish activities, including a return to religious observance and establishing a Foundation in his name (which is still in existence and still supports various religious institutions). Our collective memory quickly forgets pioneers who have helped shape our lives for the better. Haffkine was one such pioneer, whose life story is worthy of recalling almost 100 years later.

Waldemar Haffkine: Pioneer of plague vaccine and the "Little Dreyfus Affair" Waldemar Haffkine: Pioneer of plague vaccine and the "Little Dreyfus Affair" Reviewed by Neil Wilkof on Sunday, October 22, 2017 Rating: 5

1 comment:

  1. Haffkine's behaviour contrasts positively with that of Edward Jenner who tested his theory of vaccination on the gardner's son. Yet Jenner is taught in british High Schools as a hero, without cosnideration of the ethics of his approach.

    What is sad, is that even in Israel, Haffkine is not taught about in science or history programs. Nor is Weizmann, whose work was significant in both first and second world wars, in synthesizing acetone and in industrializing Fleming's penicilin discovery.

    This is a shame. If we want to encourage future generations to become scientists, they need role-models...


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