Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine

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Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine (Havkin)

Hebrew: פרופ. מרדכי וולף חבקין
Birthplace: Odessa, Russian Empire
Death: October 26, 1930 (70)
Lausanne, Lausanne, Vaud, Switzerland
Immediate Family:

Son of Aharon Chavkin and Rosalie Duvid-Ayzikovna Chavkin
Brother of Lazar Chavkin Haffkine and Natan Havkin

Occupation: microbiologist
Managed by: Yigal Burstein
Last Updated:

About Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine

Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine, CIE (Russian: Мордехай-Вольф Хавкин) (15 March 1860, Odessa, Russian Empire - 26 October 1930, Lausanne, Switzerland) was a Russian Jewish bacteriologist, whose career was blighted in Russia because "he refused to convert to Russian Orthodoxy." He emigrated and worked at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where he developed an anti-cholera vaccine that he tried out successfully in India. He is recognized as the first microbiologist who developed and used vaccines against cholera and bubonic plague. He tested the vaccines on himself. Lord Joseph Lister named him "a saviour of humanity".

Early years

Born Vladimir Aaronovich Havkin (Russian: Владимир (Маркус-Вольф) Аaронович Хавкин), the fourth of five children in a family of a Jewish schoolmaster in Odessa, Russian Empire (now Ukraine), he received his education in Odessa, Berdyansk and St. Petersburg.

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-Defense. 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 Ilya Mechnikov, but after the assassination of Tsar Alexander II, the government increasingly cracked down on people it considered suspicious, including intelligentsia. Mechnikov left the country for Pasteur Institute in Paris.

In 1888, Haffkine was allowed to emigrate to Switzerland and began his work at the University of Geneva. In 1889 he joined Mechnikov and Louis Pasteur in Paris.

Anti-cholera vaccine

At the time, one of the five great cholera pandemics of the 19th 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.

Haffkine focused his research on developing cholera vaccine and produced an attenuated form of the bacterium. Risking his own life, on July 18, 1892, Haffkine performed the first human test on himself and reported his findings on July 30 to the Biological Society. Even though his discovery caused an 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.

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 during the first year there (1893), but he managed to vaccinate about 25,000 volunteers, most of whom survived. After contracting malaria, Haffkine had to return to France.

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 had died. In March 1896, against his doctor's advice, Haffkine returned to India and performed 30,000 vaccinations in seven months.

Anti-plague vaccine

"Unlike tetanus or diphtheria, which were quickly neutralized by effective vaccines by the 1920's, the immunological aspects of bubonic plague proved to be much more daunting." In October 1896, an epidemic of bubonic plague struck Bombay (now Mumbai) and the government asked Haffkine to help. He embarked upon the development of a vaccine in a makeshift laboratory in a corridor of Grant Medical College. In three months of persistent work (one of his assistants experienced a nervous breakdown, two others quit), a form for human trials was ready and on January 10, 1897 Haffkine tested it on himself. "Haffkine's vaccine used a small amount of the bacteria to produce an immune reaction." After these results were announced to the authorities, volunteers at the Byculla jail were inoculated and survived the epidemics, while seven inmates of the control group died. "Like others of these early vaccines, the Haffkine formulation had nasty side effects, and did not provide complete protection, though it was said to have reduced risk by up to 50 percent."

Haffkine's successes in fighting the ongoing epidemics were indisputable, but some officials still insisted on old methods based on sanitarianism: washing homes by fire hose 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 20th century, the number of inoculees in India alone reached four million and doctor Haffkine was appointed the Director of the Plague Laboratory in Bombay (now called Haffkine Institute).

Connection with Zionism

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.

Little Dreyfus affair

In 1902, nineteen Punjabi villagers (inoculated from a single bottle of vaccine) died of tetanus. An inquiry commission indicted Haffkine, and he was relieved of his position and returned to England. The report was unofficially known as "Little Dreyfus affair", as a reminder of Haffkine's Jewish background and religion.

The Lister Institute reinvestigated the claim and overruled the verdict: it was discovered that an assistant used a dirty bottle cap without sterilizing it.

In July 1907, a letter published in The Times called the case against Haffkine "distinctly disproven". 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. This led to Haffkine's acquittal.

Late years

Since Haffkine's post in Bombay was already occupied, he moved to Calcutta and worked there until his retirement in 1914. Professor Haffkine returned to France and later moved to Lausanne, where he spent the last years of his life. During his brief visit to the Soviet Union in 1927, he found drastic changes in the country of his birth.

Haffkine received numerous honors and awards. In 1925, the Plague Laboratory in Bombay was renamed the Haffkine Institute. In commemoration of the centennial of his birth, Haffkine Park was planted in Israel in 1960s.

Orthodox Judaism

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. In 1929 he established the Haffkine Foundation to foster Jewish education in Eastern Europe.

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Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine's Timeline

March 15, 1860
Odessa, Russian Empire
October 26, 1930
Age 70
Lausanne, Lausanne, Vaud, Switzerland