Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: Person to Gave Vaccine to India and Pioneer of plague vaccine and the “Little Dreyfus Affair.”

Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine

Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: The Haffkine Jeevauddha Mahamanam Mandal of Mumbai suddenly came into the spotlight a few years ago when the Shiv Sena started trying to construct the Bal Thackeray Memorial on its premises. 

Later, the site of this ceremony changed. Still, this entire episode told how we had forgotten the contribution of the man who played a significant role in getting India out of not one but two epidemics.

Born in Odesa, Ukraine, Waldemar Mordecai Hafkin’s arrival in India was merely a coincidence in his life. Strangely, he spent the 22 most important years of his life here. 

He received his doctorate from St. Pittsburgh, but could not become a professor, because a Jew in the Russian Empire of the Czar could not get such a prominent position, after which he thought it reasonable to say goodbye to his country, and he reached Geneva. 

Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: Person to Gave Vaccine to India and Pioneer of plague vaccine and the “Little Dreyfus Affair.”

Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: Person to Gave Vaccine to India
Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: Person to Gave Vaccine to India

Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: He got the job teaching physiology but was not satisfied and reached Paris, near his mentor Louis Pasteur. Although he received the post of assistant librarian at the Pasteur Institute, he continued his study of bacteriology, which soon turned to the cholera vaccine. 

Hafkin first tested this vaccine on chicken and mini pigs and then injected himself with the vaccine. The vaccine he prepared required two injections at a fixed interval.

On being satisfied, when he thought of using it extensively, all the experts disagreed with him. Even his mentor Louis Pasteur did not agree with him.

Heavy opposition in India

Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: Person to Gave Vaccine to India
Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: Person to Gave Vaccine to India

The vaccine claim had already been proved false, and it was said that cholera is mainly an intestinal disease, and the vaccine could not succeed. 

In the meantime, Haffkine met Lord Friedrich Hamilton Dufferin, the British ambassador in Paris who had previously been the Viceroy of India

Cholera had spread in India on a large scale. Lord Frederick believed that this vaccine should be used in Bengal. His efforts soon brought Haffkine to India.

When he reached Kolkata in March 1893, many protests awaited him. 

Doubtless, if the vaccine could be successful, according to the Journal of Medical Biography, it was also said that the variety of bacteria that spread cholera in India is different from the one on which they have conducted experiments in Paris. 

They believed that the vaccine created would not be of any use. It was also said that the common people of India consider the epidemic a divine disaster and do not even take allopathic medicine. 

How would they be prepared to have two painful injections for this? During all these protests, Haffkine built his laboratory, but the biggest problem was that the outbreak of cholera was over when he reached Bengal. However, it was still raging in Awadh and Punjab province.

The world’s first large-scale vaccine test

Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: Person to Gave Vaccine to India
Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: Person to Gave Vaccine to India

Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: The biggest problem faced by the army and the military approached Haffkine.  He first went to Agra, wandered into the cantonments of North India, and injected about 10 thousand soldiers. 

The experiment was successful, and there was a demand for Haffkine nationwide. When the outbreak of cholera returned to Kolkata, he was called there. He also went to the tea garden laborers of Assam and also in prison in Gaya. 

In no time, they gave the vaccine to more than 42 thousand people. It is considered the world’s first large-scale vaccine trial. Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: Haffkine soon produced a new version of the vaccine, requiring a single injection.

When India was saved from the cholera epidemic, the bubonic plague knocked here.  The plague’s havoc and fear were much more significant than cholera, as it killed more than half of the infected people. 

This time too, Haffkine was responsible for preparing the vaccine, and he was invited to Mumbai, where a laboratory was built for him at Grant Medical College.

Hafkin arrived there in October 1896, and within three months, he not only prepared the vaccine but also made its first successful test on a rabbit. 

Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: Person to Gave Vaccine to India
Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: Person to Gave Vaccine to India

This time also, he adopted the same method and did the first human test himself, but the real test was done on the inmates of Byculla jail in the neighborhood. Drug testing on prisoners was not new in those days.

One hundred fifty-four prisoners were prepared for this, infecting them with the first plague.  Three prisoners died on the very first day of vaccination. A few more inmates were killed in the next few weeks. 

Still, Kuljama considered this experiment a success; shortly after that, a thousand people were injected with this vaccine in the infected areas.

In the world of medicine, this vaccine was considered to be the most successful.  Although later long-term assessment said it was successful only in 50 percent of cases, saving 50 percent of lives during an epidemic would also be considered an achievement.

Haffkine continued to experiment with this vaccine throughout the country for the next few years.  Still, during this time, an incident occurred in Mulkowal, a village in Punjab called the Mulkowal disaster in the history of vaccination.  On October 30, 1902, 107 people were given this vaccine in this village. A few days later, symptoms of tetanus were found in 19 of them, and soon they all died. 

The blame came on Haffkine, and they were sacked on murder charges. 

Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: Person to Gave Vaccine to India
Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: Person to Gave Vaccine to India

This news spread so much that it arose in Britain’s House of Commons. Desperate, Haffkine returned to Paris and, from there, continued to defend himself with letters. Upon further investigation, it was found that it was not his fault. 

One of his assistants had put a dirty lid on the vaccine bottle, which caused the problem. After this, Haffkine returned to India, but he was made director of the Biological Laboratory of Kolkata

There was no system of vaccine research and production in this laboratory. Perhaps Mulkowal’s accusations did not leave him.

Haffkine can become an inspiration.

Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: Person to Gave Vaccine to India
Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: Person to Gave Vaccine to India

It is said that during this period, he was influenced by the non-violence of Jainism, and he completely stopped using animals and birds.  In his journals, noted bacteriologist William Baloch has written that in his last days in Kolkata, Haffkine became furious about such things. 

It is said that he once scolded one of his colleagues too much just because he was dissecting a tapeworm. Amidst these circumstances, in 1915, when he turned 55, he retired and returned to Europe. 

Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: Person to Gave Vaccine to India
Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine: Person to Gave Vaccine to India

Three years later, India remembered him once when the Spanish flu epidemic developed, but this time Haffkine was not available.  Away from science, he was now trying to live his life according to Jewish religious beliefs, about which he wrote an article- ‘Plea for Orthodoxy’ – that is, the logic of prejudice.

Some people even called him ‘Mahatma Haffkine ‘ for his success. A book was also published on him with the same title. In 1925, his laboratory at Grant Hospital had renamed the Haffkine Institute. 

In 1964, the Indian Postal Department also issued a stamp on him. At the moment, when scientists from all over the world are trying to find the COVID-19 vaccine, Haffkine may be an inspiration for them.

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About the author

Praneet Thakur

Praneet Thakur is a dynamic entrepreneur and SEO expert from Mumbai, known for founding startups like ShoutRank and World Wire. His expertise in digital marketing and passion for blogging have helped clients achieve top rankings in competitive markets. As an editor for World-Wire, Praneet has made significant contributions to the internet news and marketing industry.

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