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 he 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”.
Then in March 1894, Haffkine got a break. He was invited to Calcutta by the medical officer there to help identify cholera bacilli in a water tank in one of the city’s bustees – isolated villages on the outskirts of the city consisting of mud huts clustered around ponds or tanks and inhabited by the city’s poor. The families living in these bustees drank collectively from the shared water sources, making them vulnerable to periodic outbreaks of cholera.
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Haffkine inoculating villagers in Calcutta in March 1894
To Haffkine, the bustees were an ideal proving ground for his nascent vaccine. In each household, he had a group of people living in identical conditions, equally exposed to cholera. If he could inoculate some of each family and leave some untreated, with enough participants he might finally produce some meaningful results.
At the end of March, two people died of cholera in the Kattal Bagan bustee, signalling a new outbreak. Haffkine travelled to the bustee and inoculated 116 of the 200 or so inhabitants. Afterwards, his small team observed 10 further cases there, seven fatal – all among the uninoculated.
The results were encouraging enough for the Calcutta health officer to fund a wider trial, but convincing people to be vaccinated was easier said than done. Years of top-down medical programs by the British government had sowed distrust among the population, and to many the very concept of vaccination was still alien.
Haffkine’s solution was to work with a team of Indian doctors and assistants, rather than the British – Drs Chowdry, Ghose, Chatterjee, and Dutt, among others. And he had a new trick up his sleeve in the world of vaccinology: publicly injecting himself to prove he thought his preparation was safe.
“What is remarkable, and is often lost in the story, is that after the initial resistance people began to queue in the slums in Calcutta for Haffkine’s cholera vaccine, they queued for the whole day,” said Professor Pratik Chakrabarti, the Chair in History of Science and Medicine at the University of Manchester.
“He would spend hours and whole days in those slums working with Indian doctors. He would start vaccinating in the morning before people went to work, and continue after they came back in the evenings, sitting by an oil lamp in the slum.”
Haffkine’s work in the Calcutta slums placed him among a select group of scientists who pioneered a profound and global shift in the way disease was understood and treated. But unlike Edward Jenner before him and Jonas Salk after, Haffkine’s name never really entered the public imagination, either in India or in Europe.
“Haffkine was the first person who brought that kind of laboratory medicine into a tropical country like India,” Prof Chakrabarti said. “He was a Paris scientist who came to the slums of Calcutta. He has a very dramatic story.”
When Haffkine graduated in zoology from the University of Odessa in 1884, his reward was to be barred from taking up a professorship there because he was a Jew. He had already run into political trouble five years earlier, amid pogroms, when as a member of a local defence league he fought to stop Russian army cadets destroying a Jewish man’s home. Haffkine was beaten and arrested but eventually released.
In 1888, Haffkine left his home country and found his way first to a short-lived teaching job in Geneva and then to Paris, where he took a position as an assistant librarian at the Louis Pasteur institute – then the world’s leading centre of bacteriology research. In his free time from the library, Haffkine either played the violin or experimented in the bacteriology lab.
Building on the work of Pasteur and Jenner, Haffkine discovered that by passing cholera bacilli through the peritoneal cavity of guinea pigs – 39 passes in total – he could produce a strengthened, or “exalted” cholera culture, which he could then attenuate using heat. An injection of the attenuated bacteria, followed later by an injection of the exalted bacteria, appeared to immunize guinea pigs against a lethal attack of the disease.
Up until that point, diseases like cholera had been thought of in miasmatic terms – that they travelled in bad air – and tackled with what Prof Chakrabarti called “broad spectrum treatments”. (“You put someone in a bath and steam them until they are half dead, or spray carbolic acid everywhere.”) But the work of Haffkine and others was giving disease management a focal point – a virus or bacterium that could be cultivated and attenuated, targeted precisely in the body.
A week after his success with guinea pigs in Paris, Haffkine replicated the results with rabbits and then pigeons. He was ready for a human.
On 18 July 1892, Haffkine risked his life by injecting himself with attenuated cholera. He suffered a fever for several days but recovered fully, and went on to inoculate three Russian friends and then several other volunteers. When each suffered no worse reaction, Haffkine was convinced he had a viable vaccine for wider testing.
But he needed somewhere rife with cholera to conduct large human trials. In 1893, Lord Frederick Dufferin, then the British ambassador in Paris and a former Viceroy of India, heard of Haffkine’s situation and suggested he go to Bengal.
After Haffkine’s experiments in the bustees of Calcutta the following year yielded promising results, he was invited by the owners of tea plantations in Assam to vaccinate their workers. Haffkine conducted large scale trials there on thousands of plantation coolies, but in the autumn of 1895 he contracted malaria and was forced to return to England to recuperate. According to his records, he had by that point inoculated nearly 42,000 people against cholera.
Haffkine noted later that while his vaccine appeared to reduce cases, it did not appear to reduce mortality in those who were infected. When he returned to India in 1896, he planned to address this deficiency by testing a new two-pronged formula he had developed. But there was a more pressing problem in Bombay that would take Haffkine away from cholera for good.
The world’s third plague pandemic began in Yunnan, China in 1894. It spread down to British Hong Kong and from there by merchant ship to the bustling coastal metropolis of Bombay in what was then British India, where the first case was discovered in September 1896 at a grain merchant’s quarters at the city’s docks.
At first, the British government underplayed the severity of the outbreak, keen to keep a key port city open for business. But the disease tore through Bombay’s tightly-packed slums – its mortality rate nearly twice that of cholera – and the number of dead soared. The governor turned to Haffkine for help. Haffkine travelled to Bombay, where he was set up in one small room and a corridor, with one clerk and three untrained assistants, and tasked with coming up with the world’s first plague vaccine from scratch.
“He didn’t have a lot in terms of space, manpower or facilities, but it was the first time he was working independently and had his own lab,” said Chandrakant Lahariya, an epidemiologist in Delhi. “He knew that developing a plague vaccine at record pace would make him a leading scientist of his time.”
Haffkine worked tirelessly through that winter. He discovered that if he placed plague bacilli in a nutrient broth to which he had added a small quantity of clarified butter or coconut oil, the bacilli formed into a signature stalactite growth, creating microbes and toxic products on the side. He was using the same approach he had devised for the new treatment of cholera; combining the microbes with the toxic products they produced to form a single-injection vaccine.
In December, Haffkine successfully inoculated rabbits against an attack of plague, and by January 1897 he was ready once again to test a fresh vaccine for a deadly disease on a human. On 10 January 1897, Haffkine injected himself with 10cc of his preparation – a significantly higher dose than the 3cc he planned to use in wider testing. He experienced a severe fever but recovered after several days.
At the end of that month, a plague outbreak occurred at Bombay’s Byculla House of Correction – a jail housing hundreds of inmates – and Haffkine went there to carry out controlled tests. He inoculated 147 prisoners and left 172 untreated. There were 12 cases and six deaths among the untreated and just two cases and no deaths among the treated.