Haffkine vaccinating villagers in Calcutta in 1894
Haffkine vaccinating villagers in Calcutta in 1894
wellcomecollection/ Free to use with attribution Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

This is a story of an institution that has stood the test of time. Now, this institute is going to support India to fight COVID-19. Founded in 1899, The Haffkine Institute is named after a Russian scientist, Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine who discovered the plague vaccine.

Before understanding the institution, knowing about this student of great Louis Pasteur (for those who do not know, he was famous for pasteurization process) and his role in vaccinating Indian needs to be learnt

Bacteriologist Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine
Bacteriologist Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine
wellcomecollection/ Free to use with attribution Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

- Bacteriologist Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine though Russian by birth, become a French citizen later in life.

- He lived during an era when the plague was dominating the lives of people, worst than what COVID-19 has done. Times when millions were falling dead due to illness some known and some unknown.

- While he was lauded for developing vaccines for cholera and bubonic plague, his decision to administer the vaccines on himself astonished the world. This act got him the name ‘a saviour of humanity’ ( It could be the inspiration for the tagline 'Service to Mankind' of Haffkine Bio-Pharmaceutical Corporation).

- Despite developing a vaccine for Cholera, the European official medical establishment in France, Germany and Russia did not recognise his work. Even Louis Pasteur turned away. This did not stop Waldemar. He decided to take a voyage to India, where thousands of people died due to epidemics. He realised his best bet will be India.

- With the help of some British diplomats, he was able to demonstrate his vaccine in England. Later, he came to India in 1893 and established a laboratory at Byculla in 1896, which was moved to Parel and was called Haffkine Institute.

- He worked on the plague and cholera vaccines in India. By 1902–03, half a million were immunisated. But he had his ups and lows. He was suspended after 19 people died from tetanus after being inoculated with Haffkine's vaccine. All the evidence appeared to state that the contamination of bottle 53N was the reason for these deaths. It was prepared more than 40 days earlier at the Parel lab, according to a BBC report. Due to this, he was suspended, only to be reappointed director of the Biological Laboratory in Calcutta.

- In 1915, he retired and he returned to France, after serving India and Indians for over two decades.

Today, the institution named after Haffkine is a prestigious institution that has stood up to support the country during crises.

- Haffkine Institute is an autonomous research institute grant-in-aid funded by the government of Maharashtra.

- Started as a plague research laboratory, today has the department of the anti-rabic vaccine and many such departments like pharmacology, biochemistry, clinical pathology, diagnostic reagents, chemotherapy, antitoxins among others.

- During World War I, the laboratory housed cases of enteric fever as well.

- According to the Haffkine Institute website, it has been involved in some form or the other to study illness such as H1N1 influenza, venomous animal, Avian influenza, Leptospirosis, the prevalence of TB in AIDS patients etc.

- It also has a blood bank and also introduced freeze-dried (lyophilised) blood plasma.

- While Haffkine Institute undertakes research, the Maharashtra government in 1975 bifurcated it and the production activities were given to Haffkine Bio-Pharmaceutical Corporation. Later also produced polio vaccination as well.

- Today, the centre granted approval to the Haffkine Bio-Pharmaceutical Corporation for the production of Covaxin on a technology transfer basis from Bharat Biotech. This shows the relevance of the institute even after more than 100 years of its formation.

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