This Day in Jewish History

1897: A Scientist Tests a Bubonic Plague Vaccine on Himself

Bacteriologist Waldemar Haffkine would develop breakthrough vaccines for cholera and plague, but constantly face distrust as a Jew.

Photograph showing Waldemar Mordecai Wolf Haffkine (1860-1930), bacteriologist with the government of India, inoculating a community against cholera in Calcutta, March 1894.
Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons

On January 10, 1897, bacteriologist Waldemar Haffkine, an Odessa-born Jew who trained with Louis Pasteur at his institute in Paris, tested the vaccine he had created in record time to combat a bubonic plague epidemic in Bombay, on himself. He survived, and the vaccine went on to serve as the basis for a more refined formula that provided widespread protection from the disease. 

It was not the first time that Haffkine, an Orthodox Jew, had used himself as a guinea pig before subjecting other humans to his remedies.

Vladimir Aaronovich Mordecai Wolf Chavkin (the Russian version of his name) was born on March 15, 1860, to Aaron Chavkin, a schoolmaster, and the former Rosalie Landsberg. As a child, he moved with his family to Berdyansk, a port city in eastern Ukraine, and he was educated both there and in Odessa, both part of the Russian empire.

As a young man, Haffkine was drawn to the revolutionary Narodnaya Volya group, but quit when it turned violent – it was this group that assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881. He also belonged to the Jewish League for Self-Defense. While helping to defend Jews in Odessa during a pogrom in the early 1880s, he was injured, and also arrested for his activism. 

He was only released after the intervention of his mentor Elie Metchnikoff, Haffkine’s teacher at the Imperial Novorossiya University in Odessa. Metchnikoff, a zoologist and immunologist, later went on to win the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine.

After finishing his doctorate, in 1884, Haffkine was invited to join the faculty of the university, on the condition – unacceptable to him -- that he convert to Russian Orthodoxy. Instead, he worked as a researcher at the Odessa Museum of Zoology, before moving to the University of Geneva, in 1888, and then the following year to the Pasteur Institute, in Paris, where Metchnikoff now had a position. Within a year, Haffkine had been promoted from librarian to assistant to the institute’s director. 

Cholera arrives

In 1892, a cholera pandemic swept across both Asia and Europe, and Haffkine began work on a preventive vaccine for the disease. 

After testing his vaccine, made from attenuated cholera bacteria, by injecting himself with the serum , he was anxious to try it on a large group. With the permission of the British colonial authorities, he traveled to India in 1893. Although the Jewish European doctor and his injections were regarded with suspicion and even hostility by locals, Haffkine finally succeeded in proving the efficacy of the vaccine on a widespread population group. 

The next challenge, in 1896, came with an outbreak of bubonic plague. Haffkine worked on a vaccine in a frenzy, persisting even as two of his assistants quit from the pressure and a third suffered a nervous breakdown. It was this vaccine that he tested on himself on January 10, 1897.

Five years later, 19 people in a single town in the Punjab contracted tetanus and died after inoculation with Haffkine’s plague vaccine, all having been treated with serum from the same bottle. The initial investigation into the disaster blamed Haffkine for faulty production procedures; he was relieved of his position as head of the Bombay Plague Laboratory, and left India. 

A full five years was required for the truth to be understood – that the person in the field administering the vaccine had contaminated its contents after opening the bottle. Haffkine was vindicated, and he returned to India. 

In the meantime, Haffkine, having experienced anti-Jewish hostility everywhere he lived, became devoted to the cause of resettling Jews in Palestine, and he approached the Ottoman sultan with a plan for purchasing land there for that purpose. The sultan was not interested. 

Haffkine remained in India until his retirement, in 1914, when he returned to France. In his later years, he became extremely observant religiously, and, in an attempt to convince others to follow a similar path, he wrote a book called “A Plea for Orthodoxy.” In 1929, he also established a foundation to promote Jewish education in Eastern Europe. 

Haffkine, who never married, lived his final years in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he died on October 26, 1930.