Haffkine Mordechai – vaccine pioneer

The “Small Dreyfus Affair” erupted 108 years ago, precipitated by the death of nineteen Punjab Indians after they received inoculations designed by the famous Jewish-Russian biologist Waldemar Mordechai Haffkine. His subsequent persecution led him to the realization that the millions of lives he saved was insuf­ficient to save a Jew from unjust discrimi­nation.

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Born in Odessa in Czarist Russia in 1860, Haffkine’s younger years coincided with the reign of the relatively beneficent Czar Alexander II. Thanks to an older brother’s financial assistance, he received a superb scientific education. Yet, like many intellectuals of his time, Haffkine felt the Czar was not enacting his reforms fast enough and joined the Narodnaya Volya (the People’s Will revolutionary organization that eventually assassinated the Czar), only leaving after it turned to violence.

Terrible pogroms followed the Czar’s assassination in 1881 and Jewish self­ defense units sprang up spontaneously all over Russia, their members armed with sticks, axes, and iron poles. Haffkine helped found such a unit in Odessa and was wounded in the head while blocking rioters from entering a Jewish home. Ar­rested with a pistol in his hand, he may have suffered execution or Siberian ex­ile were it not for the intervention of his half-Jewish instructor, Ilya Mechnikov, who won the Nobel Prize for Medicine in 1908.

Under the harsh Czar Alexander III, the only way for even a brilliant Jew to get places in Russian academia was to renounce his Judaism. Haffkine wasn’t interested in trading religion for personal advancement, and when offered the post of assistant professor of bacteriology with the proviso of conversion, he responded, “I was a Jew before I became a bacteri­ologist; I feel there is greater honor in remaining a Jew.” Instead, he made do with the lowly position of kustos, assis­tant, in the Odessa Museum of Zoology, and conducted study and research in his spare time.

As the government increasingly cracked down on academics and intel­lectuals, Haffkine moved to Switzerland and afterwards moved to France where he studied under the renowned Louis Pas­teur, discoverer of the germ theory of dis­ease and inventor of the vaccines against rabies and anthrax. One of the first things he did in Pasteur’s lab was to nail a mezuzah onto his door.

Vaccines, to which Haffkine devoted most of his scientific career, have been around longer than most people imagine. There is evidence that the Chinese used primitive vaccines over two thousand years ago, while in more recent centuries the Turks used to powder the scabs from people who had suffered milder cases of smallpox and use them as a vaccine against more virulent attacks. Of course, hit and miss therapy like this could just as easily kill as immunize.

The theory behind vaccination, though not fully understood at Haffkine’s time, was that introducing a harmless form of a disease activates the body into pro­ducing antigens – proteins that are tai­lor made to fight that specific disease. Then, if the real disease strikes later, the body will be ready with a supply of the disease’s antigens and easily fight it off. Creating new vaccines is a delicate balancing act as a vaccine must be virulent enough to produce antigens, but not strong enough to instigate disease or death. This is the field Haffkine labored in for about twenty-five years due to his firm conviction that life is a holy gift from Hashem.

Cholera and Plague

In those times, one of the world’s deadliest scourges was cholera. Four great cholera pandemics had terrified the world during the nine­teenth century, and now at its end a fifth plague was striking Asia and Europe.

Meanwhile, Haffkine had developed a cholera vaccine that worked with animals and concluded his project in July 1892, by injecting a quadruple dose into his own blood to ensure that it was safe for human use. Although his findings caused a stir in the press, the scientific world paid little attention. After all, who knew whether his lab trials would prove effective in the real world, who said his vaccine would pro­tect against all cholera varieties, and how long would the immunity last?

After Russia, Germany, France, and Spain rejected Haffkine’s offer to pump his brew into their collective blood­streams, he accepted an English offer to try his skills in colonial India. After his arrival on its torrid shores, he got a hot re­ception from the first vaccine opponents – Islamic extremists who believed that it was heresy to outsmart heavenly decree and attempted to assassinate him. Indeed, this sort of attitude was nothing new. The first anti-vaccine society was founded in 1798 in Boston on the premise that immu­nization opposes Hashem’s will.

Haffkine’s unprecedented plan was to utilize an entire In­dian community as a “guinea pig” to determine his inocula­tion’s effectiveness. This was no easy job. The moment he entered a diseased Indian suburb to implement his plan the crowd panicked at the sight of his unfamil­iar medical paraphernalia and stones flew into the air, smashing some of his glass instruments. To calm the mob, Haffkine raised his shirt and re­assuringly thrust a needle into his side. This gave him enough breathing space to inoculate 116 of the 200 residents and leave the rest untreated as a control. Sure enough, all the 116 survived while nine of the control group fell ill of cholera and several of them died.

Within a year, Haffkine had inoculated 25,000 volunteers, and over the years he is credited with saving hundreds of thou­sands, if not millions of people from the terrible choli ra, as it was called in He­

The second phase of Haffkine’s ca­reer began in 1896 when a Hong Kong ship sailed into Bombay harbor bearing hundreds of unwanted passengers – rats that were infected with Bubonic Plague. India, which had been free of the plague for two hundred years, now saw people dying like flies as infected rats multiplied in the thatched roofs. After three months of exhausting labor in a makeshift lab, Haffkine developed an inoculation for the dreaded disease, which, as usual, he test­ed on himself. By the turn of the century, four million people in India alone had benefited from his vaccine and millions more worldwide.

Despite his wild successes, Haffkine made the mistake of being more of a sci­entist than a politician and understood lit­tle of ingratiating himself in high places. Also, he was of the wrong race and breed; the Russians had distrusted him as a Jew and now the British distrusted him as a Russian. This led to his downfall.


In November 1902, Haffkine found himself in trouble after nineteen Punjab villagers died after being inoculated from a single bottle of his vaccine, brew no. 53N. The official reaction was violent.

“Haffkine ought to be hanged for his folly,” the viceroy of India ranted. “If this appealing catastrophe comes out, there will be an end to all inoculation in India and the cause of science will be set back for a generation… Haffkine, in my opin­ion, deserves to be tried for his life.” As a result of official injustice, Haffkine was fired and left for England.

Enraged at the injustice, distinguished English scientists demanded a proper investigation, complaining that the case against Haffkine was “not only not prov­en but distinctly disproven,” and that, “There is very strong evidence to show that the contamination took place when the bottle was opened at Mulkowal [the village where the deaths occurred], ow­ing to the abolition by the Plague authori-

ties of the technique prescribed by the Bombay laboratory and to the consequent failure to sterilize the forceps which were used in opening the bottle, and which during the process were dropped to the ground.”

Occurring at the same time as the Drey­fus Affair, this disaster was unofficially known as the Little Dreyfus Affair. De­spite his eventual exoneration, Haffkine never fully recovered; of the thirty papers he wrote in his lifetime, only one was written from the time he returned to India until his retirement in 1914.

Throughout his professional life, Haffkine never lost his contact with his heri­tage and towards the end of his career he not only adopted the full observance of Torah and mitzvos but also wrote a pam­phlet titled “A Plea for Orthodoxy” where he begged other Jews to follow his ex­ample, warning that failure to observe the Torah would mean the dissolution of the Jewish nation.

As he writes in his essay, “It so hap­pened that for many years in my personal career I found myself deprived of commu­nion with fellow Jews. Throughout these years, I obtained consolation and support from endeavoring to observe our specific laws to the best of my knowledge and abil­ity. I did so not because of apprehension of personal consequences was present in
my mind, but because of the conviction. that disobedience on the part of any one of us contributes to the bringing down, in due course, of punishment and ruin upon the whole of our kinsmen and race.”

He also points out that not only is Juda­ism not contradicted by modern science, but is the very basis of science. Science would not have existed were it not for Judaism that has “freed the mind of man of the condition in which the phenomena of nature appeared to him actuated – and thus explained – by the free-will of sepa­rate independent deities. Slowly and by degrees, passing through innumerable stages in an analysis of the life of animals and plants and of the elemental phenom­ena of heat, light, magnetism, electricity, chemistry, mechanics, geology, spectros­copy, astronomy, Science is being brought to recognize in the universe the existence of one power which is of no beginning and no end… This sum total of the scientific discoveries of all lands and times is an ap­proach of the world’s thought to our Adon Olam.”

At his passing in Switzerland in 1937, he left his entire estate to the Haffner Foun­dation, which fostered Torah education in

Eastern Europe, leading Rav Chaim Ozer Grodzinski to remark, “Dr. Haffkine de­vised not only a serum against cholera, but also a serum for Klal Yisroel – that is, for the yeshivos.”


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