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W.M. Haffkine collection [microfilm] 1892-1930
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Biographical Note

The son of a Jewish schoolmaster, W. M. Haffkine (born Vladimir Aaronovich Havkin) was born in the prosperous Black Sea port of Odessa. He entered the Faculty of Natural Sciences in the University at Odessa and completed his studies in 1882 with a dissertation on Zoology.

He became the curator of the Zoological Museum in Odessa, but was arrested as a member of a Jewish self-defense organization after the assassination of Tsar Alexander. Released after a trial, he left for Switzerland in 1888 and worked as an assistant at the Geneva medical school for a year.

In 1889 he moved to Paris and started working at the Pasteur Institute where his initial work focused on producing a cholera inoculation. 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 traveled to Calcutta and introduced his new prophylactic inoculation. After initial criticism by the local medical bodies, it was widely accepted.

Haffkine came to Bombay at the outbreak of the plague epidemic in Bombay in October 1896. He improvised a laboratory in the Grant Medical College and set to work on preventive and curative measures. A curative serum was tested in four months, but was found to be unreliable; emphasis moved to a preventive vaccine using dead bacteria. 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. The Aga Khan provided a building to house Haffkine's "Plague Research Laboratory" and other prominent citizens of Bombay supported his researches. However, the medical community was not very sympathetic towards him. In 1902 the vaccine apparently caused nineteen cases of tetanus. An inquiry commission indicted Haffkine, who was relieved of his position as Director of the Plague Laboratory. A review of the commission's report by the Lister Institute in England overturned this decision, putting the blame squarely on the doctor who administered the injections, and exonerated Haffkine.

Haffkine returned to France and settled in Boulogne-sur-Seine, and occasionally wrote for medical journals. In 1925, when the Plague Laboratory in Bombay was renamed the "Haffkine Institute", he wrote that "...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.


  • Encyclopedia Judaica (1971)