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Arunansh B Goswami
An Indo-Israel friendship ambassador.

India’s Haffkine: Zionist Saviour of Indians

Zionist, saviour of Indian lives, Dr. Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine. Image Source: The Posts & Telegraphs Department Government of India.

Our world has gone through a tragic and substantially devastating period when it comes to health, wealth and longevity of the humans, over the years of recent Coronavirus pandemic, which by the way is still not over. “Covid-Warriors” the healthcare staff in different parts of the world are on the front line, braving all odds to save human life. Vaccine inequality has divided the developed and developing world even more, broadening the chasm of distrust that the Global South has had on the Global North when it comes to sharing and caring of world resources. But there was a  man “white” by the colour of his skin and “Jewish” by faith and ethnicity, who brought together the entire world to fight diseases through vaccination.

Photograph showing Waldemar Mordecai Wolffe Haffkine (1860-1930), Bacteriologist with the Government of India, inoculating a community against cholera in Calcutta, March 1894. Image source: Wikicommons.

Here are a few questions for the readers. Would  you believe that there was a Zionist Jewish man that worked in India who personally vaccinated more than 42,000 people and by 1900 had saved the life of 4,000,000 people? That he saved the world from two Pandemics and an Indian Jew from Bombay Flora Sassoon, who “walked like a queen, talked like a sage” supported him in his noble endeavours? Would you believe it, that this man inoculated himself with a Plague Vaccine to test it’s efficacy before testing it on common people ( It is said it could be the inspiration for the tagline ‘Service to Mankind’ of Haffkine Bio-Pharmaceutical Corporation)? Well yes, such a man indeed walked on earth like us, and Indians call him “ the white magician “ a magician who through his work of science became a saviour of mankind, and gave it all up to become an Orthodox Jew and set up a fund to aid the yeshivas of Eastern Europe in his later life. Interesting and fruitful live indeed.

History of Plagues

Doctor Simmonds injecting his curative serum in a plague patient, during the outbreak of bubonic plague in Karachi, India. Photograph, 1897. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.

There have been three great world pandemics of plague recorded, in 541, 1347, and 1894 CE, each time causing devastating deaths of people and animals across nations and continents. As per the calculations done by Ole J Benedictow Emeritus Professor of History at the Universtiy of Oslo, Norway, Black Death an epidemic of bubonic plague killed 50 million people in the 14th century, or 60 per cent of Europe’s entire population. The Black Death was caused by the bacterium Yersinia pestis that circulates among wild rodents where they live in great numbers and density. Such an area is called a ‘plague focus’ or a ‘plague reservoir’. Plague among humans  arises when rodents in human habitation, normally black rats, become infected. This disease has been a cause of death of a large part of humankind in history. Plague of Cyprian is estimated to have killed 5,000 people a day in Rome alone. In the Plague of Justinian that ravaged the Byzantine empire between A.D. 541-542, it is estimated 10% of the world population died.  By the time the Great Plague of London ended, about 100,000 people, including 15% of the population of London, had died. With the start of Great Plague of Marseille from 1720, It’s estimated that up to 30% of the population of Marseille may have perished. In the Russian Plague of 1770-1772 around 1,00,000 people died. The plague re-emerged from its wild rodent reservoir as a third wave of Pandemic in the remote Chinese province of Yunnan in 1855, In 1900 the plague came to Australia The third pandemic waxed and waned throughout the world for the next five decades and did not end until 1959, in that time plague had caused over 15 million deaths, the majority of which were in India.

The Zionist Saviour

Dr. Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine. Image source: Wikicommons.

Waldemar Mordecai Wolff Haffkine (Russian name Chavkin) was born in Odessa, Ukraine in a family of Jewish merchants, on 15 March 1860 to Aaron and Rosalie in a severely antisemitic environment of Tsarist Russia then which the readers will get to know in detail later. The Chavkin family though was educated in culture of the West. During the days Waldemar was young, his family moved to Berdiansk on the Sea of Azov where Aaron Chavkin Waldemar’s father became a teacher in a school. Waldemar received a classical education, and later entered the University of Odessa in 1879 to study physics, mathematics and zoology. He came under the influence of half Jewish Professor Elie Metchnikoff the famous immunologist and developed an interest in unicellular organisms. In those times of political unrest leading to repression and antisemitic pogroms, Haffkine became a political activist and member of the Odessa League of Self Defence. In one incident involving army cadets, he fought to stop Russian army cadets destroying a Jewish man’s home, was wounded and imprisoned; fortunately, Metchnikoff was able to free his brilliant student and also saved him from persecution. In 1883 Haffkine was awarded the degree of Candidate of Natural Sciences and became an assistant to the Zoological Museum of Odessa with the use of a research laboratory. In 1884, he successfully defended his thesis for the degree of doctor of science, but was debarred from a professorship because of being Jewish by faith.  Metchnikoff had been invited by Louis Pasteur (1822-95) to be one of the heads of laboratory at the newly opened Pasteur Institute; In Paris, Haffkine asked his old teacher for a position at the institute and Metchnikoff was able to find one as assistant librarian. It was at Pasteur Institute that Haffkine developed the vaccine for Asiatic Cholera. Waldemar Haffkine arrived in India in March 1893 and started his vaccination mission from Calcutta, all vaccinations were voluntary, he went on to vaccinate 42,000 Indians himself, Haffkine developed vaccine against bubonic plague too, in his Bombay laboratory (later the Haffkine Institute), at first Haffkine self-experimented, but in 1897 he received support from the Baghdadi Jewish entrepreneur Lady Flora Sassoon (1856-1936), who became one of the first volunteers to be inoculated, as half the general population fled Bombay, experience gained from testing the anti-cholera vaccine was now used to try and evaluate the effectiveness of the anti-plague vaccine too. 

Recognition and Awards

Sarah Angelina Acland, “Sir Henry Acland & Mr. M. W. Haffkine”
(digital positive from half-plate negative, 1899). Image source: Bodleian Library, Minn Collection Negative 202/9.

“Haffkine was the first person who brought that kind of laboratory medicine into a tropical country like India,” as per Professor Pratik Chakrabarti, the Chair in History of Science and Medicine at the University of Manchester.  Dr. Chandrakant Lahariya, an epidemiologist in Delhi said that “ We should never forget that Haffkine made a viable vaccine in a two-room lab with a very small team. It is almost unbelievable. He inspired so many scientists to take up vaccine research in the early 20th Century, but somehow his contributions were forgotten.”

Haffkine inoculating Indians against Cholera. Image source: Wikicommons.

It is said despite developing a vaccine for Cholera, the European official medical establishment in France, Germany and Russia did not recognise his work and hence he had to move to India. In 1899 Waldemar Haffkine went on leave to London where he received fulsome praise for his anti plague vaccine. In 1897, in the Birthday Honours List of Queen Victoria, he had been named Companion of the Order of the Indian Empire (CIE), an Order founded in 1877 on the assumption by Queen Victoria of the title of Empress of India. He was appointed director-in-chief of the Plague Research Laboratory at Government House in Parel, Bombay, with new facilities and a staff of 53. Now Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine applied and became a naturalised British citizen. In 1900 the University of Edinburgh, in their award of the prestigious Cameron Prize in Practical Therapeutics, recognised Waldemar Haffkine’s great achievement in saving many thousands of lives by prophylactic vaccination against cholera and against the plague.

Discrimination Haffkine Faced for Being a Jew

Sarah Angelina Acland, “Mr Mordecai Wolfgang Haffkine” (digital positive from half-plate negative, 1899). Image source: Bodleian Library, Minn Collection Negative 169/4.

Haffkine was a victim of anti-Semitism several times in his life, from his early days in Tsarist Russia to his days of work, research and on field action in British India, by Victorian administrators in India. He has been called a victim of “Little Dreyfus Affair,”  in British India, where In 1902, Haffkine arrived at the village of Mulkowal in Punjab in order to inoculate the villagers there. Many days after the treatment was given, nineteen villagers died from tetanus. Accusatory fingers with conspicuous antisemitic air to them were immediately pointed at Haffkine, with complaints emerging that something had gone wrong with one of the vaccine bottles, In 1904, two years after Haffkine was suspended, the plague reached its peak in India, killing 1,143,993 people that year. Haffkine’s vaccine was the “main line of defence”, Dr Hawgood said, but its creator was stuck in London fighting for his name.

Later exonerated, Haffkine retired in 1914, devoting the rest of his life to Jewish and Zionist activism. In 1920 he became a member of the Central Committee of the World Jewish Union.  Haffkine supported Zionist organisations and provided aid to Jewish war victims during and after WWI. Following the war he founded the Haffkine Foundation which fostered Jewish education in Eastern Europe. Towards the end of the 19th century, he even met with Sultan Abdul Hamid II, in an attempt to persuade him to sell lands in Ottoman Palestine to Jews. The Sultan wasn’t too enthusiastic about the idea. In 1928, the scientist moved to Lausanne, where he spent the rest of his life. He donated all his property, as well as $ 300,000, to the Foundation for the Promotion of Young Talents of the Jewish Religious Schools of Eastern Europe.

Floor plan of the bene israel Plague hospital. Image source: Collection of Kenneth and Joyce Robbins.

In 1898, Haffkine had also set up the Bene Israel Plague Hospital and Segregation Camp for the less wealthy Bene Israel Indian Jewish community. By the end of 1902, half a million Indians had been inoculated against cholera and the bubonic plague. Haffkine offered to transfer his vaccine free of charge to the Russian Empire, where the epidemic was raging but, because of his Jewish origin, he was refused. 

India’s Haffkine Institute 

Haffkine Institute Mumbai India. Image source: Haffkine Indtitute Mumbai India.

Established in 1899, Haffkine is one of the oldest biomedical research institutes in India. On the 10th of August 1899, the present mansion, which was at one time the residence of the Governor of Bombay, was formally handed over to Dr. Haffkine by the Governor Lord Sandhurst. it was designated as “Plague Research Laboratory” with Dr. Haffkine as its Director in Chief. In 1906 the Institute was renamed as “Bombay Bacteriology Laboratory”. Finally, in 1925, due to the efforts of Lt. Col. F.P. Mackie, the Institute was aptly named as “Haffkine Institute”. By the time Dr. Haffkine left India in 1904, the Institute had developed the technology for the production of plague and cholera vaccines. Haffkine Bio Pharmaceuticals Corporation Limited at Parel in Mumbai has also started the project for manufacturing Covaxin in collaboration with Bharat Biotech that has developed the first indigenous Covid-19 vaccine in India. 

Haffkine Institute Mumbai India. Image source: Haffkine Institute Mumbai India.

Haffkine we remember 

Plague research Laboratory, Parel, bombay 1902–3. Image source: Photographs by Dr Gibson. Collection of the jewish national and university Library, jerusalem.

Indians still remember, the Great Jewish saviour of mankind maybe because of substantial lack of antisemitism in India. On Mar 16, 1964 The Posts & Telegraphs Department of the Government of India announced that it is a great privilege to honour the memory of this great bacteriologist ( Dr. Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine ), whose work was of immense value to India, by bringing out a special commemorative stamp on the occasion of his 104th birth anniversary. 2 million Stamps Dedicated to Haffkine were printed by Indian Security Press and it was mentioned that The Haffkine Institute, Bombay, has extended his ideas and thought by fruitful researches in the field of communicable diseases. Indians pay their respect to this great Zionist and saviour of the lives of several Indians.

About the Author
Mr. Arunansh B. Goswami is an advocate, historian and popular author based in India. He studied history at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi, read law at Campus Law Centre, University of Delhi, completed a diploma in International Environmental Law, and later joined the Bar Council of Delhi and Supreme Court Bar Association in India. Mr. Goswami has written around 200 articles for different prestigious publications, newspapers, magazines and journals around the world. He works as a consultant with Union Minister of Steel and Civil Aviation of India, Mr. J. M. Scindia and Mrs. Priyadarshini Raje Scindia titular Queen of the erstwhile princely state of Gwalior. Mr. Goswami has studied Israeli and Jewish History deeply and travelled extensively in Israel, and other parts of the world, to explore and research about sites associated with Jews.
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