Sunday, March 15, 2020

An early pandemic hero

In these troubling times, with Covid-19 reaping havoc across the world, it is worth remembering Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine, a Russian born scientist credited with carrying out the first effective programmes for tackling pandemics. Born 160 years ago today, he developed vaccines for cholera and bubonic plague, and organised successful inoculation campaigns in India - until being falsely accused of causing several deaths. He left behind diaries covering much of his life, some of which are held by the British Museum, but there is very little information online about their content. One biographical study suggests that his diaries reflect bitterness towards ‘faithless assistants’.

Haffkine was born into a Jewish family on 15 March 1860 in the prosperous Black Sea port of Odessa (then in Russia now in Ukraine). His early education took place in Berdyansk, a port much further east on the Black Sea, but he returned to Odessa to study natural sciences at Malorossiisky University. There he came under the influence of microbiologist Elie Metchnikoff, a future Nobel Prize winner. After earning a doctorate, he joined the staff of the Odessa Natural History Museum where he worked until 1888, publishing five papers on the hereditary characteristics of unicellular organisms. Although his career was blighted by growing anti-semitism, he was allowed to leave Russia for Switzerland where he joined the University of Geneva, teaching physiology. Two years later, he moved to Paris to join Metchnikoff who had been invited to head the newly­ opened Pasteur institute. Haffkine was employed as an assistant librarian, but also worked in the lab on bacteria.

By the early 1890s, Haffkine had shifted his attention to studies in practical bacteriology. He developed an anti-cholera vaccine that he tested on himself. Anxious to assess the value of the vaccine, he applied to the Russian embassy and others for a suitable opportunity. The British ambassador in Paris, and a former Viceroy of India, helped enable Haffkine to visit India, where ongoing epidemics were rife. He was appointed state bacteriologist to the Indian government in 1893, and successfully employed his cholera vaccine. He set up a lab (which later moved to Mumbai and even later became the Haffkine Institute), and went on to develop a vaccine against bubonic plague. In 1897, he was knighted by Queen Victoria. In 1901, he was made Director ­in ­Chief of the Plague Laboratory with a staff of 53, and his plague vaccine was used to inoculate half a million people.

There was, however, much scheming against Haffkine. His staff, mostly British officers, were less than enthusiastic at having a Jew running the organisation. Some British officials thought him a Russian spy; and Indian dissidents tried to discredit him by attacking the vaccine as a poison or made up of animal flesh. When 19 inoculated people died of tetanus, Haffkine was blamed. After an enquiry, he was relieved of his position (some even named this The Little Dreyfus Affair). He returned to Europe in 1904. The enquiry decision was eventually, in 1907, overturned, and with the support of many eminent scientists, Haffkine was able to restore his reputation and return to India in 1908.

With his previous post (at the plague lab he had set up) occupied, he was made Director-in-Chief of the Biological Laboratory in Calcutta, but it had no facilities for vaccine production, and his terms of employment were restricted. Frustrated, he retired at the minimum age of 55, and returned to Europe, to live in France, then Switzerland. He travelled widely, with a renewed passion for Jewish issues, focusing on the welfare of Jews and migration as well as the health and education of the Jewish people He never married. He died in 1930. Wikipedia has some further biographical information online, as does the US National Library of Medicine. But better sources are Barbara J. Hawgood’s article on Haffkine in The Journal of Medical Biography (available at The James Lindlay Library website) and Marina Sorokina’s article Between Faith and Reason Waldemar Haffkine (1860-1930) in India which can be found on the Russian Grave website.

Haffkine left behind a store of diaries. According to the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York it holds a ‘photostat’ of Haffkine’s diary and a typed transcript. It says: ‘The diary is fragmentary for the period 1895-1908, but is complete for the period May 1915 to October 1930. The original manuscript is at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The diary has a “guide” and annual indices.’ However, I cannot find any evidence of the diaries on the Hebrew University website. The National Library of Israel does have a Haffkine archive, but it doesn’t specifically mention any diaries. On the other hand, the British Library (India Office Records and Private Papers) holds some 16 diaries (plus an index of social engagements) kept by Haffkine, dating from 1919 to the year of his death. Furthermore, the US National Library of Medicine holds ‘published materials from the India Home Department related to the vaccination incident (along with Haffkine's personal diaries on microfilm)’

Unfortunately, I can find very little further information about Haffkine’s diaries online. Sorokina in her article Between Faith and Reason mentions her subject’s diaries three times.
- ‘The diaries and notebooks of the young Haffkine show him to have been a romantic and revolutionary.’
- ‘An officer-­in- charge of the Laboratory, Major William Barney Bannerman, who had spent about 20 years serving the Indian Medical Service, intrigued against Haffkine with the support of some of the staff. In his diaries, Haffkine wrote bitterly of Bannerman: “There is nothing for him to do. . . we do not let him do anything else.” ’
- In his diary Haffkine sadly confessed to himself: “The main feature of my life is solitude”.

Also, Hawgood says in her article that Haffkine’s ‘personal diaries for the years 1903-05 reflect his bitterness that “he was dispossessed of the fruits of his labours by faithless assistants [British medical men]”.’

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