Working in Paris and India at the turn of the last century Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine created the world’s first vaccines for cholera and plague. Then an accidental mass poisoning derailed his life.
In the spring of 1894, Waldemar Haffkine travelled to Calcutta in the Indian state of Bengal in search of cholera. Spring was cholera season in the city, and Haffkine was hopeful.
He had arrived in India the previous March armed with what he believed was a vaccine for the disease, but had struggled all year to make progress testing his creation. From the moment of his arrival, Haffkine was met with scepticism and resistance from some of the British medical establishment and the Indian public. He was not a doctor but a zoologist. And he was a Russian Jew who had trained in Odessa and developed his skills in Paris, at a time when the world of international bacteriology was factional and prone to suspicion.
Haffkine, who was 33 when he landed in India, also struggled with the practical side of testing his vaccine. His first iteration required two injections, separated by a week, and his team sometimes struggled to locate test subjects for the second prick. And despite the wide spread of cholera in India, finding it in sufficient concentration wasn’t straightforward. Haffkine inoculated about 23,000 people that year in northern India, according to his own records, “but no cholera appeared in their midst to show whether the vaccine was of value or not”.
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