Names like Jonas Salk, Louis Pasteur, and Edward Jenner may ring some bells when you think about the history of vaccines. Each of these scientists created a life-altering vaccine that shaped the world we live in today. One scientist that is not as well is Waldemar Haffkine, the scientist who developed both the cholera and plague vaccines.
Haffkine was born in 1860 to a family of Jewish teachers in Odessa, Russia. In the late 1870s and early 1880s Haffkine studied under Ilya Mechnikov, the Nobel Prize-winning scientist who discovered phagocytosis. Haffkine was also interested in self-defense and defending other Jews. He was involved in the activist group The Jewish League for Self-Defense and during a pogrom he was injured and arrested for his involvement with the group. Mechnikov was able to intervene and get Haffkine released.
Haffkine continued to learn and earned his doctorate degree in 1884. After earning his degree Haffkine worked as a researcher at the University of Geneva. He later went to work at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, where his colleague Mechnikov was already working. Initially, Haffkine began working as a librarian while he waited for a better opportunity to arise. Within a year Haffkine was promoted to the institute’s director.
In 1892 a cholera outbreak swept across Asia and Europe, killing hundreds of thousands as it migrated across the countries. During this time Haffkine began to concentrate on developing a cholera vaccine. The vaccine was developed quickly, but Haffkine could not get the support he needed to allow him to test the vaccine.
To prove that his cholera vaccine was safe and effective Haffkine vaccinated himself on July 18, 1892. His efforts were not enough to prove the cholera vaccine was safe. Haffkine spent the next several years traveling through India where cholera was in full swing. After one year in India, Haffkine was granted a trial for his vaccine by the British Authorities. He began testing the vaccine at the deltas of the Ganges and Brahmaputra Rivers, the primary source for the spread of cholera.
Haffkine began the trials unaware of the disadvantages he would soon face. The British Authorities labeled his trial as voluntary, so the number of participants was too low to accurately gauge the vaccine’s effectiveness. The low number of participants gave Haffkine unbalanced statistics to work with when he compared the results.
Secondly, the British Authorities who approved the trial did not provide any financial support for Haffkine. He was obligated to pay for the entire trial himself. The British anti-vax groups used their power to intervene with the British military and went so far as to interfere with his efforts to vaccinate people. Thus, further sabotaging Haffkine and his efforts to vaccinate people against cholera.
Since neither cholera nor cholera vaccines hadn’t been previously researched there was little information on how to predict where cholera would strike next. Haffkine set up his trials in what he thought was a “hot spot” for cholera. After vaccinating 20,000 people, cholera did not reappear. This meant he couldn’t test the vaccine’s effectiveness. This was another discouraging moment for Haffkine’s research.
After Haffkine found a verified source of cholera in a community water supply, he was able to gather enough information about the vaccine’s effectiveness to move forward with the trial. His vaccines proved to be about 80% effective in the prevention of cholera. When the bubonic plague arrived in 1896, Haffkine was brought in by the Indian government to create a vaccine. He once again tested the vaccine on himself before allowing it to be used in a trial.
Thanks to Haffkine’s determination we have nearly eradicated both the bubonic plague and cholera.
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Written for Passport Health by Brittany Evans. Brittany is a freelance writer and photographer in North Carolina. She has a passion for the outdoors, health information, and traveling. You can find her at her website.