“The journey we make here upon the earth is so short. Before we know where we are, we are at the end, and called upon to answer an inner voice: ‘Have you finished the work you had to do?’ Happy are they who can think, yes, they have finished their work.”
~ Dr. Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine
Dr. Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine — a Ukrainian scientist was a bacteriologist who worked mainly in India and developed vaccines against cholera and bubonic plague.
The son of a Jewish schoolmaster, WM Haffkine was born in the Black Sea port of Odessa, but received most of his early education in Berdiansk. Dr. Haffkine then entered the University of Odessa in 1879 to study physics, mathematics and zoology. He came under the influence of Professor Elie Metchnikoff and developed an interest in unicellular organisms. In 1883 Haffkine was awarded the degree of Candidate of Natural Sciences and became an assistant to the Zoological Museum of Odessa with the use of a research laboratory.
In 1889, he moved to Paris and started working in Pasteur's world famous laboratory. His initial work on producing a cholera inoculation was successful. He produced an attenuated form of the bacterium by exposing it to blasts of hot air. A series of animal trials confirmed the efficacy of the inoculation. In July 1892, Haffkine performed his first human test: on himself! During the Indian cholera epidemic of 1893, he travelled to Calcutta and introduced his new prophylactic inoculation. After initial criticism by the local medical bodies, it was widely accepted.
The then Governor of Bombay invited Dr. Haffkine to Bombay in 1896 after an epidemic of plague broke out in the city. He found a place to work at the JJ Group of Hospitals where he developed a plague vaccine. On the 10th January 1897, Dr. Haffkine caused himself to be inoculated with 10 cc of a similar preparation, thus proving in his own person the harmlessness of the fluid. A form useful enough for human trials was ready by January 1897, and tested on volunteers at the Byculla jail the next month. Use of the vaccine in the field started immediately.
Recognition followed quickly. In 1898, the laboratory moved to Khushru lodge owned by Sir Sultan Shah, Aga Khan III, KCIE, head of the Khoja Mussulman community. This bungalow was fitted up at the Aga Khan’s expense for Haffkine’s use and about half the Khoja Mussulman community of Bombay (10,000–12,000 persons) received prophylactic inoculations under the auspices of His Highness the Aga Khan.
In 1885, the Governor left his residence and the premises were used as House of Recorders of the Bombay Presidency. In 1895, King Edward VII visited India as Prince of Wales, and stayed on the premises for a week. On such a historical premise, Dr. Haffkine entered on 10th August 1899. At that time it was designated as ‘Plague Research Laboratory’ with Dr. Haffkine as its Director in Chief. In 1906 the Institute was renamed as ‘Bombay Bacteriology Laboratory’. Finally, in 1925, due to the efforts of Lt. Col. F.P. Mackie, the Laboratory was aptly named as ‘Haffkine Institute’.
After his retirement in 1914, he returned to France and settled in Boulogne-sur-Seine, and occasionally wrote for medical journals. In 1925, when the Plague Research Laboratory in Bombay was renamed the ‘Haffkine Institute’, he wrote “...the work at Bombay absorbed the best years of my life...”. He revisited Odessa in 1927, but could not adapt to the tremendous changes after the revolution. He moved to Lausanne in 1928 and remained there for the last two years of his life.