Tuesday, 30 March 2021

Plagues, Vaccines and Revolutionaries

[From London Socialist Historians Group Newsletter 72 (Spring 2021)]

Plagues, Vaccines and Revolutionaries

When Waldemar Haffkine met Shapurji Saklatvala in Colonial Bombay 

    Waldemar Haffkine (1860-1930) inoculating a community against cholera in Calcutta, March 1894    

From May 1896, Bombay (now Mumbai) in colonial India was hit by the world’s third great outbreak of bubonic plague, which had arrived in the port from China. 

Though the British authorities were determined to keep the port open regardless of the mounting death toll, by October 1896 it became impossible for them to just carry on denying the presence of the plague any longer, after doing their best to ignore the reports being sent their way by health officials and local doctors. 

As Alex Benham has noted, building on the scholarship of David Arnold in his Colonizing the Body: State Medicine and Epidemic Disease in Nineteenth-century India (1993), the British Raj responded to this outbreak in four ways which have eerie parallels to the disastrous way our Tory government has responded over the last year. 

Firstly, when they finally faced up to the reality of the outbreak they denied its seriousness - the official announcement stressed the disease was merely of a ‘mild’ type, even though they were soon recording a thousand plague deaths a month. 

Secondly, Benham notes there was ‘a constant prioritising of the economy over the lives of racialised, colonised people. The British were committed to preserving the function of the city’s textile mills and its vast port, and were willing to accept deaths as an unavoidable cost of doing business’. Indeed, ‘it was only when France threatened a total ban on Indian trade and passengers and its ports that Britain conceded to the necessity to act … quickly enacting a domestic quarantine on Bombay sea traffic, and then passing the Epidemic Diseases Act in early 1897.’ 

Thirdly, they blamed the people who were dying for the spread of the plague and what the British regime which all its characteristic colonial racism regarded as the ‘innate filthiness’ of their houses - rather than their own failure as authorities to either provide decent housing for its subjects, or act against the plague earlier.

Finally, when those among the working population of Bombay either fled for their lives, or resorted to riots after their houses were demolished, the British Empire resorted to detentions and executions – rather than trying to protect and help those suffering, Benham writes of the Raj’s ‘constant recourse to coercion’.[1]  

Yet amid the horrors of the plague emerged an unlikely hero – the Russian-born bacteriologist Waldemar Haffkine, hailed by Joel Gunter and Vikas Pandey recently on the BBC website as ‘the vaccine pioneer the world forgot’. 

Born Vladimir Aaronovich Mordecai Wolf Chavkin in 1860, the son of a Jewish schoolteacher, Haffkine grew up amid the virulent antisemitism of Tsarist Russia, but despite poverty made it to the University of Odessa.

 As the BBC report, ‘when Haffkine graduated in zoology from the University of Odessa in 1884, his reward was to be barred from taking up a professorship there because he was a Jew. He had already run into political trouble five years earlier, amid pogroms, when as a member of a local defence league he fought to stop Russian army cadets destroying a Jewish man's home. Haffkine was beaten and arrested but eventually released’.[2]  What the BBC don’t mention is that Haffkine’s politics were somewhat more radical than this – according to one writer, Haffkine 

soon saw the injustices of the Tsarist regime, which interfered constantly with the freedom of the university, and he joined the revolutionary underground movement known as the Narodnaya Volya Party [People’s Will], an illegal organisation set up in 1879. Some of its members resorted to acts of terrorism in their fight against the tyranny of the monarchy. In 1882 Haffkine was expelled from the university for sending a letter to the Rector in support of Professor Mechnikov, who was in disgrace with the authorities. In 1881 he was arrested and served a jail sentence, and he was under police surveillance in Odessa for eight years, and three times endured the extremely harsh conditions of imprisonment under the Tsarist regime.[3] 

According to another writer, in 1882, Haffkine took part in the successful assassination of Tsarist general Major General Vasily Strelnikov.[4]  After spending time in Paris to get away from the heat on him as a revolutionary in Tsarist Russia, Haffkine had a breakthrough – he developed a pioneering vaccine against cholera. This success soon led him to be appointed State Bacteriologist of the British Crown. Sent to India as a good place to test his new vaccine in 1894, Haffkine won the trust of local people to launch a mass vaccination programme firstly by working with Indian doctors and secondly by publicly injecting himself to show it was safe. In 1896, Haffkine was called to Bombay and charged with the task of developing a vaccine against the plague, something which, against the odds, he successfully achieved. 

As one writer notes, ‘There was great antagonism to the system, and many people were terrified that it would actually give them the disease rather than protect them from it. Professor Haffkine insisted always that vaccination should be voluntary; then, as now, the rights of the individual were sometimes protected. Perhaps, though, had it been compulsory, it might not have taken six years for the plague to be brought under control’.[5]  

As Gunter and Pandey note, ‘inside a year, hundreds of thousands of people had been inoculated using Haffkine's vaccine, saving untold numbers of lives. He was knighted by Queen Victoria, and in December 1901 he was appointed director-in-chief of the Plague Research Laboratory at Government House in Parel, Bombay, with new facilities and a staff of 53 … Between 1897 and 1925, 26 million doses of Haffkine’s anti-plague vaccine were sent out from Bombay. Tests of the vaccine's efficacy showed between a 50% and 85% reduction in mortality’, saving countless lives.[6] 

 This is not the place to go into the subsequent life and work of Haffkine, and why in 1903 he (unfairly, and almost certainly in part as the result of British antisemitism) fell from grace and into subsequent obscurity and neglect outside of India itself before his death in 1930 in Paris. Rather it is to record the fact that while working in Bombay amid the plague this Russian revolutionary scientist met and quite possibly influenced a young Bombay-born Parsi student, Shapurji Saklatvala, who despite his privileges in life had volunteered to help those suffering most during the plague. 

                                                   Shapurji Saklatvala

Saklatvala would later become an important anti-imperialist and the Communist MP for Battersea North in London.  In a speech in 1927 he recalled that the racism of British India meant it was difficult enough to even arrange to meet Haffkine. 

'In 1902 a plague was having a devastating effect all over India. It was to be taken in hand not merely as a grave problem, but as something to save human lives. There was a Professor Haffkine in those days, who was the first man who, with some measure of success, gave out an anti-plague serum for inoculation. His experiments were being conducted on a large scale. I was then associated as secretary with an important committee of welfare workers. The Governor of Bombay, who was then himself staying out of Bombay, immediately sent a telegram to Professor Haffkine to go to him with certain facts and figures because the matter was becoming of vital importance. 

Professor Haffkine asked me to go and assist him. I gave up my work in the office, and I went to the place where he was staying, and that was his European club. People talk about untouchability! Although I had facts and figures at my disposal which were the result of months of study, and the Professor had only four or five hours at his disposal, I was actually prevented from entering the white man’s club. 

Yet a representative of that race today talks nonsense about untouchability among the Hindus. Ultimately, when it could not be helped, the messenger of the club, after telephoning to various government officials, took me to the back yard of the club, led me through the kitchen and an underground passage to a basement room, where the Professor was asked to see me because I was not a white man.'[7] 

According to Sehri Saklatvala, whose chapter on ‘The Plague Years’ in the biography she wrote of her father The Fifth Commandment gives the greatest detail about the relationship between Saklatvala and Haffkine, ‘what a blessing’ Haffkine’s ‘presence in India was to prove to be, not only for India but for the whole of mankind’.

'And incidentally to this great cause, circumstances were to bring this Russian revolutionary, this brilliant and dedicated scientist and humanitarian, into contact with Shapurji Saklatvala. Was it perhaps Haffkine who sowed the seed of revolution in the fertile garden of Shapurji’s compassionate nature? It seems to me to be highly likely, for Shapurji was to work with the professor for six plague-ridden years … Of course, in the situation in which he was now working, Professor Haffkine had neither time nor energy for politics and devoted himself entirely to his scientific research and his unceasing efforts to inoculate as many of the population as possible. But it is surely likely that he talked to Shapurji about his experiences when the two of them met.

It is, I think, safe to assume that, when Shapurji was sent to a basement room in the European club and Professor Haffkine had to join him there, that some comment of the situation must have been made. It is recorded that the Professor was very critical of the British imperialist authorities, noting as he did the abject poverty, overcrowding and insanitary housing in which the majority of the Indians lived; he saw that the victims of the plague were to be found mostly among the poor, and scarcely any in the European or wealthier quarters of the city. When Shapurji presented him with the statistics, it is inconceivable that no comments were made and that no discussions took place between the two men. Their outlooks had much in common; and no doubt this close association between the older idealist and scientist and the young, compassionate student, must have helped to form and to crystallise the convictions of Shapurji.' [8]  

If we can be forgiven one final quote from Sehri Saklatvala, she reflects on the impact seeing the devastation of the plague in Bombay from 1896-1902 must have left on her father, who subsequently

'spent his whole life thereafter struggling to better the lot of those masses of people living in destitution, want and humiliation. What he saw in those years of the bubonic plague must have remained always in his mind. It was to those victims of circumstance that he dedicated his life. The charitable and benevolent community of Parsis, to which he belonged, always sought to alleviate the distress of the poor. This was not enough for Shapurji. He sought not to alleviate but to eliminate poverty entirely; and not only in India, but all over the world. The 1917 revolution in Russia and the events following upon it led him to believe implicitly that communism could end abject poverty; it was for this reason and this reason alone, that he devoted the rest of his life to the propagation of world communism.'[9] 

 Many have noted how comparatively well the early Soviet Republic responded to the global pandemic of not just influenza and cholera but also typhus in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution.[10] 

Here it seems we have another inspiring example of how one individual Russian revolutionary scientist rose to the challenge of defeating the bubonic plague a couple of decades before – but also how the experience of witnessing the devastation the plague left in its wake inspired another figure to dedicate their lives with sincerity and self-sacrifice to the cause of revolutionary socialism, in order that such barbaric catastrophes might one day become a thing of the past. 

Christian Høgsbjerg                                                            

[1]  Alex Benham, ‘Another Nightingale: Coronavirus, Plague and the Colonial Violence of British Neglect’, New Socialist, 25 August 2020, https://newsocialist.org.uk/another-nightingalecoronavirus-plague-and-colonial-violence-british-neglect/ There is a brief discussion of the plague in Bombay in Mike Davis, Late Victorian Holocausts: El Nino Famines and the Making of the Third World (London: Verso, 2001), pp. 172- 175. 

[2]  Joel Gunter and Vikas Pandey, ‘Waldemar Haffkine: The vaccine pioneer the world forgot’, BBC website, 11 December 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-55050012 

[3]  Sehri Saklatvala, The Fifth Commandment: A Biography of Shapurji Saklatvala and Memoir by his Daughter, Originally published by Miranda Press, July 1991, First digital edition, July 2012, p. 23. 

[4] David Markish, ‘Dr. Waldemar Haffkine. The Savior Mankind Never Knew’, https://mahatmahaffkine.com/en?l=1#history 

[5]  Saklatvala, The Fifth Commandment, pp. 26-27. 

[6]  Gunter and Pandey, ‘Waldemar Haffkine’. 

[7]  Saklatvala, The Fifth Commandment, p.21. For more on Saklatvala, see Mike Squires, Saklatvala: A Political Biography (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1990) and Marc Wadsworth, Comrade Sak: A Political Biography (Leeds: Peepal Tree Press, 1998). 

[8]  Saklatvala, The Fifth Commandment, pp. 26-27. 

[9]  Saklatvala, The Fifth Commandment, p. 30. 

[10] Vijay Prashad, ‘Either socialism will defeat the louse or the louse will defeat socialism’, 24 April 2020, republished on Monthly Review online, https://mronline.org/2020/04/24/eithersocialism-will-defeat-the-louse-or-the-louse-will-defeatsocialism/ and Charlie Kimber, ‘Russia 1917 - how a revolution beat back a pandemic’, Socialist Worker, 8 May 2020, https://socialistworker.co.uk/art/50023/Russia+1917+++how+a +revolution+beat+back+a+pandemic

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