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Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine

Born 1860
Died 1930

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Russian-British bacteriologist, born March 15, 1860, Odessa, Russia; died October 25, 1930, Lausanne, Switzerland.

Biography of Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine

Waldemar Mordecai Wolfe Haffkine – born Vladimir Aronovich Havkin – was the third of six children of Rosalie Landsberg and Aaron Khavkin, a schoolmaster. He was born in the prosperous Black Sea port of Odessa. The family was Jewish and of modest circumstances. Haffkine’s mother died just before his seventh birthday and his father was frequently absent on business; his childhood was therefore lonely. He himself never married.

Haffkine received most of his early education in Berdiansk. He attended the local Gymnasium there and became interested in books, science, and physical fitness and received the highest grades. After the school he enrolled to the Department of Natural Sciences in Odessa Malorossiysky University and studied physics, mathematics and zoology. He supported his studies with small sums he earned as a tutor and graduated doctor of science in 1884.

While in the University Haffkine came under influence of the microbiologist and future Nobel Prize winner Elie Metchnikoff (1845-1916).

Revolutionary and scientist
For a short time, young Haffkine was a member of Narodnaya Volya, but after the group turned to terrorism against public officials, he broke up with the revolutionary movement. He was also a member of the Jewish League for Self-Defence. Haffkine was injured while defending a Jewish home during a pogrom. As a result of this action he was arrested but later released due to the intervention of Ilya Mechnikov.

Haffkine continued his studies with famous biologist Élie Metchnikoff, but after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, the government increasingly cracked down on people it considered suspicious, including intelligentsia.

Haffkine was then offered a teaching position at the university on the condition that he convert to the Russian Orthodox Church, which he refused to do. Instead he accepted an appointment as kustos – assistant – in the Odessa Museum of Zoology, which he held until 1888. While there he wrote two articles that were published in the Annales des sciences naturelles of Paris, and he became a member of the Society of Naturalists of Odessa.

He left Odessa to teach physiology for a year under Moritz Schiff (1823-1896) at the University of Geneva. In 1889 Metchnikoff, who was working at the Pasteur Institute, offered him the only position vacant there – that of librarian. Haffkine accepted eagerly and in 1890 became assistant to the director of the institute, Émile Roux (1853-1933). This event changed the entire course of Haffkine’s life and brought him into the mainstream of research in preventive medicine.

The prevention of cholera
At the Pasteur Institute his initial work focused on producing a cholera inoculation. The prevention of cholera had already occupied Metchnikoff and Robert Koch (1843-1910). At the time, one of the five great cholera pandemics of the nineteenth century ravaged Asia and Europe. Even though Robert Koch discovered Vibrio cholerae in 1883, the medical science at that time did not consider it a sole cause of the disease. This view was supported by experiments by several biologists, notably Jaume Ferran i Clua in Spain.

In 1888, during the epidemic, Haffkine took up cholera research. He produced an attenuated form of the bacterium by exposing it to blasts of hot air. A series of animal trials confirmed the efficacy of the inoculation. Risking his own life, on July 18, 1892, Haffkine performed the first human test on himself. He injected himself with a dose of four times the strength that was later used, recorded his reactions, and determined that his vaccine was safe for human use. On July 30 he reported his findings to the Biological Society of Paris. His success brought him congratulations from Koch, Roux, and Louis Pasteur (1822-1895).

Even though his discovery caused enthusiastic stir in the press, it was not widely accepted by his senior colleagues, including both Mechnikov and Pasteur, nor by European official medical Establishment in France, Germany and Russia.

Haffkine then sought to test the vaccine under epidemic conditions and decided to go to Siam. When Lord Duffin, ambassador to France and formerly viceroy of India, learned of his project he persuaded Haffkine to go instead to India. The scientist decided to move to India where hundreds of thousands died from ongoing epidemics. At first, he was met with deep suspicion and survived an assassination attempt by Islamic extremists; on one occasion stones thrown by the crowd broke glass instruments and a panic nearly ensued. Haffkine quickly pulled up his shirt and allowed another to plunge a hypodermic into his side. The curiosity of the villagers was thus aroused and 116 of the 200 peasants assembled volunteered for inoculation. None were to die in the epidemic, although nine of those who refused inoculation did.

During the first year in India – 1893 – he managed to vaccinate about 25,000 volunteers, most of whom survived. Haffkine kept careful records of his subjects, including their sex, physique, age, race, religion, and caste. Within two years 45.000 persons were inoculated, most of them twice, and the death rate from cholera was reduced by 70 percent. Haffkine was still unable, however, to evaluate the degree of immunity conferred or how long it lasted.

In his August 1895 report to Royal College of Physicians in London about the results of his Indian expedition, Haffkine dedicated his successes to Pasteur, who recently died. In March 1896, against his doctor's advice, Haffkine returned to India and performed 30,000 vaccinations in seven months.

The plague
In 1895 Haffkine contracted malaria and left India for England to try to recover his health. He returned to Calcutta in March 1896. Six months later he was reassigned to Bombay (now Mumbai), where plague was epidemic since October that year. Despite denials by the newspapers, the death toll was rising and many were fleeing the city.

The government asked Haffkine for help and he embarked upon the development of a vaccine in a makeshift laboratory in a corridor of Grant Medical College. With a staff of one clerk and three servants, he began experiments with antiplague vaccine on laboratory animals. A curative serum was tested in four months, but was found to be unreliable; emphasis moved to a preventive vaccine using dead bacteria.

By December, Haffkine was convinced of the efficacy of the vaccine on animals. On January 10, 1897 a doctor agreed to inoculate him in secret and the principal of the college agreed to be a witness. Once again the dosage was four times that which was later used. Haffkine developed high fever and pain at the site of the injection; nevertheless, he attended a meeting of the Indian Medical Service, no one present being aware of the injection he had undergone. The next morning, when he described his symptoms – admitting the pain – to the staff, faculty, and students of the college and asked for volunteers, hundreds responded. The vaccine was also tested volunteers at the Byculla jail the next month. All the volunteers survived the epidemic, while seven inmates of the control group died. Use of the vaccine in the field started immediately.

Haffkine's successes in fighting the ongoing epidemics were undisputable, but some officials still insisted on old methods based on sanitarianism: washing homes by firehose with lime, herding affected and suspected persons into camps and hospitals, and restricting travel.

Even though the official Russia was still unsympathetic to his research, Haffkine's Russian colleagues doctors V.K. Vysokovich and D.K. Zabolotny visited him in Bombay. During the 1898 cholera outbreak in the Russian Empire, the vaccine called "лимфа Хавкина" ("limfa Havkina", Havkin's lymph) saved thousands of lives across the empire.
By the turn of the century, the number of inoculees in India alone reached four million and doctor Haffkine was appointed the Director of the Plague Laboratory in Bombay

Scientists from many countries – including Russia – came to the Plague Research Laboratory in Bombay which was established in 1899. There he taught them his methods of vaccine preparation and inoculation procedures. Requests for enormous quantities of vaccine arrived from all over the world. The laboratory, after much stress and agitation, was moved to the Old Government House, where it still functions. Haffkine himself was invited to lecture before the Royal Society of London and profession groups, and received many other honours. In 1897 Queen Victoria named him Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire, and in 1899 he applied for and was granted British citizenship.

In 1898, Haffkine approached Aga Khan III with an offer for Sultan Abdul Hamid II to resettle Jews in Palestine, then a province of the Ottoman Empire: the effort "could be progressively undertaken in the Holy Land", "the land would be obtained by purchase from the Sultan's subjects", "the capital was to be provided by wealthier members of the Jewish community", but the plan was rejected.

Following his retirement in 1914, Haffkine returned to France and settled in Boulogne-sur-Seine, and occasionally wrote for medical journals. In 1925, when the Plague Laboratory in Bombay was renamed the "Haffkine Institute", he wrote that "...the work at Bombay absorbed the best years of my life... ". He revisited Odessa in 1927, but could not adapt to the tremendous changes after the revolution. He moved to Lausanne in 1928 and remained there for the last two years of his life.

Plague and contamination
In 1902 plague was an epidemic in the Punjab and an all-out inoculation campaign was planned. Haffkine requested from England a dozen doctors and nurses and thirty soldiers – to be trained in his laboratory – to aid in this effort, but received only a handful. In the middle of this, at the end of October, nineteen Punjabi villagers, of the tens of thousands inoculated, contracted tetanus and died. All had been inoculated from the same bottle of vaccine (brew No. 53N); no unusual results were traced to the five other bottles used the same day. The British medical officials publicly accused Haffkine and his laboratory of having sent contaminated vaccine to the Punjab, and Haffkine was suspended without pay before proper investigations were even begun. The report was unofficially known as "Little Dreyfus affair", as a reminder of Haffkine's Jewish background and religion.

A commission of inquiry was appointed, headed by Sir Lawrence Jenkins, chief justice of Bombay. The commission lasted almost five years, including the preparation of its report. Haffkine was called before it several times, then returned to England in 1904. The report was withheld until 1907, when public and other pressures – most notably a letter to the Times of London, initiated by Sir Ronald Ross (1857-1932) and signed by ten prominent bacteriologists, listing arguments why the charge against Haffkine must be disproved – forced its release. The letter concluded that «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.»

It was signed by Ronald Ross (Nobel laureate, malaria researcher), R.F.C. Leith (the founder of Birmingham University Institute of Pathology), William R. Smith (President of the Council of the Royal Institute of Public Health), and Simon Flexner (Director of Laboratories at New York Rockefeller Institute), among other medical dignitaries.

Haffkine was exonerated, and began negotiations that took him back to the work in India that he realized was unfinished. He was broken in morale but chose to return despite reduced status and at his original pay, contrary to the promises of local princes.

He was again in Calcutta in December 1907, in the laboratory of the Presidency General Hospital. He met with coolness from the British medical officers, as he had throughout his career, but received cooperations from the Indians. The Institut de France awarded him the Prix Briant, its highest honour, in 1909, and the Tata Institute of Science in Bangalore elected him to its Court of Visitors. In 1915 he reached compulsory retirement age and left India to spend some time in London and then in Paris.

In his later years, Haffkine returned to Orthodox Jewish practice. In 1916, he wrote A Plea for Orthodoxy. In this article Haffkine advocated traditional religious observance and decried the lack of such observance among "enlightened" Jews. In1929 he created the Haffkine Foundation, which still exists, for fostering religious, scientific, and vocational education in Eastern European yeshivas - he bequeathed the Foundation his personal fortune of $500.000.

For the rest of his life he occupied himself with Jewish affairs. In 1925 the Plague Research Institute that he founded in Bombay was renamed in his honour and still bears the name Haffkine Institute.

Lord Joseph Lister named him "a saviour of humanity".

In commemoration of the centennial of his birth, Haffkine Park was planted in Israel in the 1960s.

We thank Patrick Jucker-Kupper, Switzerland, for information submitted.

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