15th March 1860 – 26th October 1930 Waldemar Haffkine

Waldemar Haffkine

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Waldemar Haffkine
Waldemar Haffkine.jpg

Waldemar Haffkine
Born 15 March 1860
Odessa, Russian Empire
Died 26 October 1930
Lausanne, Switzerland
Fields bacteriology, protozoology
Institutions Imperial Novorossiya University, University of Geneva, Pasteur Institute
Alma mater Imperial Novorossiya University
Known for vaccines against choleraand bubonic plague
Author abbrev. (botany) Khawkine

Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine, CIE (Russian: Мордехай-Вольф Хавкин; in some publications in French: Mardochée-Woldemar Khawkine) (15 March 1860, Odessa,[1] Russian Empire – 26 October 1930,Lausanne, Switzerland) was a Russian Empire Jewish bacteriologist, whose career was blighted in Russia because “he refused to convert to Russian Orthodoxy.”[2] He emigrated and worked at the Pasteur Institute inParis, 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”.

He was knighted in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee year Honours in 1897. The Jewish Chronicle of that time noted “a Russian Jew, trained in the schools of European science, saves the lives of helpless Hindoos and Mohammedans and is decorated by the descendant of William the Conqueror and Alfred the Great” (Page 8 of the London Jewish Chronicle 1 June 2012).

§Early years[edit]

Born Vladimir Aaronovich Chavkin (Russian: Владимир (Маркус-Вольф) Аaронович Хавкин), the fourth of five children of Aaron and Rosalie (née Landsberg) in a family of a Jewish schoolmaster in Odessa, Russian Empire (now Ukraine), he received his education in Odessa, Berdyansk and St. Petersburg.[3]

Young Haffkine 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.[2]

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.

§Protozoological studies[edit]

Haffkine began his scientific career as a protozoologist and protistologist, under the tutelage of Ilya Mechnikov at Imperial Novorossiya University in Odessa and later at the Pasteur Institute in Paris.[4] His early research was on protists such as Astasia, Euglena, andParamecium, as well as the earliest studies on Holospora, a bacterial parasite of Paramecium.[4] In the early 1890s, Haffkine shifted his attention to studies in practical bacteriology.[4]

The euglenid genus Khawkinea is named in honor of Haffkine’s early studies of euglenids, first published in French journals with the author name translated from cyrillic as “Mardochée-Woldemar Khawkine”.

§Anti-cholera vaccine[edit]

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.[2] 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.[5] 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[edit]

“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.”[6] In October 1896, an epidemic of bubonic plague struck 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[7] Haffkine tested it on himself. “Haffkine’s vaccine used a small amount of the bacteria to produce an immune reaction.”[8] 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.”[6][8]

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 Mumbai (now called Haffkine Institute).[2]

Haffkine was the first to prepare a vaccine for human prophylaxis by killing virulent culture by heat at 60 °C.[9] The major limit of his vaccine was the lack of activity against pulmonary forms of plague.[10]

§Connection with Zionism[edit]

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[edit]

In 1902, nineteen Indian 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),[11] 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.

Published materials from the India Home Department related to the vaccination incident (along with Haffkine’s personal diaries on microfilm) are held at the National Library of Medicine in Bethesda, Maryland.[12]

§Late years[edit]

Since Haffkine’s post in Mumbai 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 theSoviet 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 Mumbai, Maharashtra was renamed the Haffkine Institute. In commemoration of the centennial of his birth, Haffkine Park was planted in Israel in 1960s.

§Orthodox Judaism[edit]

In an autobiography of him, Nobelist Selman Abraham Waksman explains that, in this last phase of his life, Haffkine had became a deeply religious man. Haffkine returned to Orthodox Jewish practice and wrote A Plea for Orthodoxy (1916). In this article, he advocated traditional religious observance and decried the lack of such observance among “enlightened” Jews, and stressed the importance of community life, stating:

A brotherhood built up of racial ties, long tradition, common suffering, faith and hope, is a long tradition, common suffering, faith and hope, is a union ready-made, differing from artificial unions in that the bonds existing between the members contain an added promise of duration and utility. Such a union takes many centuries to form and is a power for good, the neglect or disuse of which is as much an injury to humanity as the removal of an important limb is to the individual… no law of nature operates with more fatality and precision than the law according to which those communities survive in the strife for existence that conform the nearest to the Jewish teachings on the relation of man to his Creator; on the ordering of time for work and rest; on the formation of families and the duties of husband and wife, parents and children ; on the paramount obligations of truthfulness and justice between neighbor and neighbor and to the stranger within the gates.

—Haffkine (1916)[13]

In addition, in 1929, he established the Haffkine Foundation to foster Jewish education in Eastern Europe. Haffkine was also profoundly respectful of other religions, and “he considered it of the utmost importance to promote the study of the Bible.”[14]


  • Edinger, Henry. The Lonely Odyssey of W.M.W. Haffkine, In Jewish Life Volume 41, No. 2 (Spring 1974).
  • Waksman, Selman A.. The Brilliant and Tragic Life of W.M.W. Haffkine: Bacteriologist, Rutgers University Press (1964).
  • Hanhart, Joel. Lausanne University, Faculté de biologie et médecine. Haffkine, une esquisse : biographie intellectuelle et analytique de Waldemar Mordekhaï Haffkine 2013.[15]


  1. Jump up^ Waldemar Haffkine: Pioneer of Cholera Vaccine. EDYTHE LUTZKERAND and CAROL JOCHNOWITZ. American Society for Microbiology
  2. ^ Jump up to:a b c d Rats, fleas and men; Anthony Daniels on how the secret of bubonic plague was found. by Anthony Daniels. Sunday Telegraph (London). p. 14. August 25, 2002.
  3. Jump up^ Hawgood, Barbara J (2007). “Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine, CIE (1860–1930): prophylactic vaccination against cholera and bubonic plague in British India”. Journal of Medical Biography 15: 9–19. doi:10.1258/j.jmb.2007.05-59.
  4. ^ Jump up to:a b c Fokin, Sergei I. & Görtz, Hans-Dieter (2009). “Diversity of Holospora bacteria in Paramecium and their characterization”. In Fujishima, Masahiro. Endosymbionts in Paramecium. Microbiology Monographs. Volume 12. Springer. pp. 161–199. ISBN 9783540926771.p. 164–165
  5. Jump up^ Fazal lauds Indo-Russian friendship. The Press Trust of India. December 18, 2002.
  6. ^ Jump up to:a b Pestis redux: the initial years of the third bubonic plague pandemic, 1894-1901. Echenberg, Myron. Journal of World History. Pg. 429(21) Vol. 13 No. 2 ISSN: 1045-6007. September 22, 2002.
  7. Jump up^ Haffkine Institute.org
  8. ^ Jump up to:a b Facts and ideas from anywhere; The amish, body weight, and exercise; obesity related costs; neurologist, author, master of Pembroke college of Oxford University, and breaker of the 4-minute mile record, Bannister, Roger, Sir; Editorial. Roberts, William Clifford. Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings. Pg. 377(9) Vol. 17 No. 3 ISSN: 0899-8280. July 1, 2004.
  9. Jump up^ Practical bacteriology, microbiology and serum therapy (medical and veterinary) on Open Library at the Internet Archive, p. 468
  10. Jump up^ Haffkine’s plague vaccine on Open Library at the Internet Archive
  11. Jump up^ History. Birmingham University.
  12. Jump up^ “W.M. Haffkine collection [microfilm] 1892-1930”. National Library of Medicine.
  13. Jump up^ See the A Plea for Orthodoxy; reprinted from The Menorah Journal Méhul, Etienne Nicolas. Joseph and his brethren : opera in three acts ([19?]). London : Breitkopf & Härtel, p. 13
  14. Jump up^ Waksman, Selman Abraham. 1964. The brilliant and tragic life of W.M.W. Haffkine, bacteriologist. Rutgers University Press. p. 75; 77
  15. Jump up^ Societe des Etudes Juives

§External links[edit]


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