The Orthodox Jew Who Developed the Cholera and Bubonic Plague Vaccines

April 7, 2022 | Saul Jay Singer
About the author:

Mordechai Wolff Haffkine was born in 1860 in what is now Ukraine; as a youth, he founded the Jewish League for Self-Defense in Odessa and was injured while defending a Jewish home during the Odessa pogrom of 1881. As Saul Jay Singer documents, Haffkine was mentored by Louis Pasteur and almost singlehandedly developed the vaccines for both cholera and bubonic plague—often at great personal cost. He encountered significant anti-Semitism among the British and European officials and scientists with whom he worked, and became embroiled in what is now known as “the Little Dreyfus Affair.”

Haffkine had many enemies, including envious and resentful “establishment” scientists and the British colonial bureaucracy, particularly the British officers who comprised most of the staff at his laboratory, who were all unhappy about a Russian Jew heading the operation. Sham, but nonetheless damaging, reports began to circulate, including rumors that he was a Russian secret agent and an enemy of the British colonial rule and reports that he had produced the [cholera] vaccine with pig flesh, an anathema to both Hindus and Muslims.

His antagonists soon succeeded in finding a way to ruin him when, during a mass outdoor inoculation in the Punjabi village of Malkowal on October 30, 1902, nineteen villagers died from tetanus. It was quickly determined that the cause of the deaths was the failure of an Indian assistant to follow Haffkine’s established sterilization and sanitation procedures after he dropped a forceps that he was using to open the vaccine bottles, and that all the deaths were from vaccines administered from this single bottle; all other subjects who had been inoculated that day were thriving.

Nonetheless, a kangaroo Indian Commission of Inquiry was convened to investigate the matter and determined that the bottle of vaccine had been contaminated in his lab and that he was responsible. Relieved of his title and position, he was sent back to England in ignominy.

When the Indian government finally released its full inquiry in 1906—four years later—much of the scientific community came to his support and, on July 29, 1907, the London Times published a letter signed by ten internationally renowned microbiologists. . . . The letter cited not only the injustice of wrongfully accusing one of mankind’s and India’s “greatest benefactors,” but it also warned about the adverse repercussions that would arise out of false information eroding the public trust in vaccines—a warning that has particular resonance today.

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