“Unlike tetanus or diphtheria, which were quickly neutralized by effective vaccines by the 1920s, the immunological aspects of bubonic plague proved to be much more daunting.” In October 1896, an epidemic of bubonic plague struck Bombay and the government asked Haffkine to help. He embarked upon the development of a vaccine in a makeshift laboratory in a corridor of Grant Medical College. In three months of persistent work (one of his assistants experienced a nervous breakdown; two others quit), a form for human trials was ready and on 10 January 1897 Haffkine tested it on himself. “Haffkine’s vaccine used a small amount of the bacteria to produce an immune reaction.” After these results were announced to the authorities, volunteers at the Byculla jail were inoculated and survived the epidemics, while seven inmates of the control group died. “Like others of these early vaccines, the Haffkine formulation had nasty side effects, and did not provide complete protection, though it was said to have reduced risk by up to 50 percent.”
Despite Haffkine’s successes, some officials still primarily insisted on methods based on sanitarianism: washing homes by fire hose with lime, herding affected and suspected persons into camps and hospitals, and restricting travel.
Even though official Russia was still unsympathetic to his research, Haffkine’s Russian colleagues, doctors V. K. Vysokovich and D. K. Zabolotny, visited him in Bombay. During the 1898 cholera outbreak in the Russian Empire, the vaccine called “лимфа Хавкина” (“limfa Havkina”, Havkin’s lymph) saved thousands of lives across the empire.
By the turn of the 20th century, the number of inoculees in India alone reached four million and Haffkine was appointed the Director of the Plague Laboratory in Bombay (now called Haffkine Institute). In 1900, he was awarded the Cameron Prize for Therapeutics of the University of Edinburgh.
Haffkine was the first to prepare a vaccine for human prophylaxis by killing virulent culture by heat at 60 °C. The major limit of his vaccine was the lack of activity against pulmonary forms of plague.
In a biography of him, Nobelist Selman Abraham Waksman explains that, in this last phase of his life, Haffkine had become a deeply religious man. Haffkine returned to Orthodox Jewish practice and wrote A Plea for Orthodoxy (1916). In this article, he advocated traditional religious observance and decried the lack of such observance among “enlightened” Jews, and stressed the importance of community life, stating:
A brotherhood built up of racial ties, long tradition, common suffering, faith and hope, is a union ready-made, differing from artificial unions in that the bonds existing between the members contain an added promise of duration and utility. Such a union takes many centuries to form and is a power for good, the neglect or disuse of which is as much an injury to humanity as the removal of an important limb is to the individual… no law of nature operates with more fatality and precision than the law according to which those communities survive in the strife for existence that conform the nearest to the Jewish teachings on the relation of man to his Creator; on the ordering of time for work and rest; on the formation of families and the duties of husband and wife, parents and children ; on the paramount obligations of truthfulness and justice between neighbor and neighbor and to the stranger within the gates.— Haffkine (1916)
Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine, CIE (1860–1930):
prophylactic vaccination against cholera
and bubonic plague in British India by Barbara J Hawgood
for those that want to study about the man more in depth.