Mystery Surrounds 1890s Cholera Antidote Found in Zionist Archive

Nir Hasson
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
The cholera antidote with the letter, believed to have been written by Dr. Waldemar Haffkine.Credit: Tower of David Museum
Nir Hasson

In April 1989, an employee of the Central Zionist Archives was handling a file dating back to pre-state years, when a dark glass ampoule containing a light-brown liquid fell out. Attached to the ampoule was a handwritten note dating from 1892, stating that the liquid contained a cholera antidote.

The ampoule was again lost in the archival labyrinth, until it recently resurfaced. Examination of the note and the ampoule’s contents indicated that this was indeed one of the first batches of an anti-cholera vaccine, and one of the first scientific immunization preparations ever manufactured.

The handwriting was determined to be that of Dr. Waldemar Haffkine, a pioneer in combating epidemics who developed the vaccine against cholera.

Although much is known about the man and his vaccine, no one can explain how this ampoule made its way into the Zionist Archives. It will be delivered next Friday to the Tower of David Museum in Jerusalem, where it will be exhibited as part of an exhibition on the city’s medical history.

Haffkine was born in Odessa in 1860, into an assimilated Jewish family. He studied biology with Ilya Mechnikov, a Nobel Prize winner. In 1890, he joined the Louis Pasteur Institute in Paris and started to investigate cholera. Within two years, he had developed the first vaccine against the lethal disease. To prove that the vaccine was harmless, he injected himself and some friends with it. After surviving the injection, he informed the French Biological Society that he had completed development of the vaccine.

The note found in Jerusalem is from September 1892, a month after his announcement. It is therefore likely that the ampoule is from one of the first batches produced. “It’s the very beginning, the first time there is a real, scientifically developed vaccine [preceding ones against smallpox and rabies were less rigorously developed]. Finally, there was a solution to the most deadly disease of the 19th century,” said Dr. Dan Barel, a microbiologist and medical historian who tried to determine the ampoule’s provenance.

Louis Pasteur and other French scientists did not believe that Haffkine’s vaccine was effective. Haffkine tried to test this in a population suffering from cholera, and approached the authorities in Russia. “The response he got was that it would be better that peasants died from cholera rather than be treated by Jews,” explained Barel.

Haffkine then turned to the British and went to Bengal in order to try out his vaccine on populations in cholera-afflicted areas. The vaccine was first given to British soldiers and prisoners, and only later to local residents. The vaccine quickly proved to be effective in blocking the spread of the epidemic, and its use became standard practice.

In later years, Haffkine also developed a successful vaccine against the plague, becoming a world expert on epidemics. According to Dr. Barbara Hawgood, who has researched Haffkine’s work, there is no doubt that his vaccines saved tens of thousands of lives in India. He became well-known in India and to this day there is a microbiology research center named after him in Mumbai.

In 1902, 10 years after the vaccine was developed, there was a cholera outbreak in Palestine. Dr. Hillel Yaffe, the senior physician here at that time, consulted with Haffkine. As far as is known, the vaccine was not brought here but the epidemic subsided. Only at the end of World War I was a branch of the Pasteur Institute established in Palestine, starting local production of the vaccine.

At the end of his days, Haffkine returned to Judaism and became an ultra-Orthodox Jew. Nevertheless, he never visited this country. Upon his death in 1930, his archives were transferred to the National Library and not to the Zionist Archives.

Barel believes there are two ways in which the ampoule could have ended up in the Zionist Archives. It could have been part of Haffkine’s archives that were moved to the National Library, but since it was not a book it may have been relocated. Alternately, the ampoule could have belonged to Alexander Marmorek, a doctor and Zionist activist who worked at the Pasteur Institute alongside Haffkine, and whose estate was transferred to the Zionist Archives.

Cholera disappeared decades ago in the Western world, mainly due to improved sanitation and the availability of clean drinking water. But it still affects and kills thousands of people a year in the developing world, mainly in Africa. In recent years, a new and stronger vaccine has been developed, but Barel is highly critical of health authorities in the West and their attitude to the disease. “The world has forgotten this disease, since it’s a Third World disease – it exists in Africa and no one pays any attention to it. Ebola, too, was only addressed when it started to threaten the West.”

Click the alert icon to follow topics: