Original cholera vaccine turns up in Jerusalem
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Original cholera vaccine turns up in Jerusalem

Buried in archives for decades, glass ampoule from 1892 now on display

Renee Ghert-Zand is a reporter and feature writer for The Times of Israel.

Ampoule of Dr. Waldemar Haffkine's original cholera vaccine. Letter on left was written in 1989 by Central Zionist Archives employee. Letter on right is believed to have been written by Haffkine. (Courtesy Tower of David Museum)
Ampoule of Dr. Waldemar Haffkine's original cholera vaccine. Letter on left was written in 1989 by Central Zionist Archives employee. Letter on right is believed to have been written by Haffkine. (Courtesy Tower of David Museum)

An exhibition about the history of health and medicine in the Holy City from ancient times until the mid-20th century has been on display at the Tower of David Museum since last spring. However, one intriguing item has only been part of the show, “Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis,” since the beginning of this month.

The new object is a glass ampoule containing what is believed to be one of the earliest samples of a cholera vaccine. It’s a fascinating artifact, and the journey it took to its eventual place at the Tower of David is somewhat of a mystery.

The ampoule did not turn up as museum staff and consultants scoured Jerusalem for material for the exhibition. But later, news of the exhibition — and the research that went into producing it — sparked the memory of someone who recalled an ampoule falling out of a file as it was handled at The Central Zionist Archives in April 1989.

Fortunately, the file and ampoule were located and turned over to the museum for inclusion in the exhibition.

The ampoule had been wrapped in a little package containing a note, dating from 1892, stating that the ampoule contained the antidote for cholera. The letter is believed to have been written by Dr. Waldemar Haffkine, the Russian-Jewish microbiologist, who developed the first cholera vaccine in 1892. Since the letter accompanying the ampoule was dated September 1, 1892, just a couple of months after he announced his vaccine, it is believed that the sample is from one of the first batches — if not the very first batch — produced.

Haffkine left Russia, where he had studied protozoology, for Switzerland in 1888, because it had become difficult for Jewish scientists to continue working in Russia following the government’s anti-Semitic crackdown in the wake of the assassination of Tsar Alexander II. Two years later, he joined Louis Pasteur’s institute in Paris and shifted his focus to practical bacteriology.

Receiving a vaccine (illustrative photo: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Receiving a vaccine (illustrative photo: Miriam Alster/Flash90)

According to an article on the cholera vaccine ampoule in Haaretz, Haffkine wanted to test his new vaccine in Russia, but the Russian authorities preferred that peasants die from cholera than be treated by a Jew. Instead, Haffkine received permission from the British government to go to Bengal to try the vaccine on British soldiers and prisoners, and then later on the local population. The vaccine quickly proved to be effective in preventing the spread of the disease. Haffkine was honored widely for his contributions to the field of immunology, including by Queen Victoria, who bestowed knighthood upon him in 1897.

The change brought about by Haffkine’s cholera vaccine, as well as the one he developed against plague, was revolutionary.

“Throughout the 19th century, cholera pandemics broke out all over the world, and the fear of the disease, coming from India, in Europe was extremely great, as it would kill thousands of people in a given city in a mere few weeks,” wrote Dr. Dan Barel, a microbiologist and historian of medicine in an email to The Times of Israel.

Cholera is an acute diarrheal infection caused by ingestion of food or water contaminated with the bacterium Vibrio cholerae. It has a short incubation period of two hours to five days, and it can kill within hours.

The exhibition includes a handwritten book from 1865 recording the names of the many Jerusalem residents who died from cholera. It testifies to the extent to which the disease ravaged the Jewish community (the Yishuv) in Ottoman Palestine.

It is known that during a cholera outbreak in 1902, Dr. Hillel Yaffe, the senior physician in the Yishuv, consulted with Haffkine by letter. However, Barel is quite certain that Haffkine did not send any vaccine to Yaffe. The vaccine was produced locally only after WWI, when a branch of the Pasteur Institute was set up in Mandate Palestine.

In this March 7, 2012 file photo, a couple sits next to the Tower of David on the wall surrounding Jerusalem's Old City. (photo credit: AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
A couple sits next to the Tower of David on the wall surrounding Jerusalem’s Old City, March 7, 2012. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner, File)

Haffkine became an Orthodox Jew later in life, but he never visited the Holy Land before dying in Switzerland in 1930. However, he willed his extensive personal archive to the National Library of Israel. Barel believes that the cholera vaccine ampoule was likely part of that archive and may have been transferred to The Central Zionist Archives because it was not written matter.

Although no one can speak with absolute certainty about every step in the historically significant cholera vaccine ampoule’s 123-year journey from Paris to a display case in the Tower of David, there is no question that the artifact and its story adds great value to “Jerusalem: A Medical Diagnosis.”

Visitors to the museum can view the ampoule in the section of the exhibition dealing with plagues and epidemics. It has been placed next to the cholera death record book from 1865 and an Ottoman medal given to a Jewish physician for contributing to the halt of Jerusalem’s cholera epidemic of 1902.

The ampoule is now housed in a museum, but cholera has not faded in to history. While cholera has been all but eradicated in some parts of the world, there are still regions in which it is still endemic. According to the World Health Organization, there are an estimated 3–5 million cholera cases and 100,000–120,000 deaths due to the disease every year.

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