Life & Culture

Simon Schama: The forgotten Jewish hero who developed immunisation

In lockdown, the historian researched the history of humanity’s fight against disease and now he talks about his new book with the JC.


I confess, the name Waldemar Mordechai Wolff Haffkine meant nothing to me until I read of him in Sir Simon Schama’s latest book. The Jewish scientist from Odesa was the first to develop vaccines against cholera and bubonic plague, saving countless lives in India in the 1890s and early 1900s with the immunisation campaign he conducted under the Raj.

But “the hyperdermic missionary of modern medicine” and “proven conqueror of contagion”, as Foreign Bodies dubs him, had also been “completely unknown” to Sir Simon, he acknowledged, before he embarked on the work that deservedly rescues Haffkine from obscurity.

As a community, we might be “happy, or notorious, for celebrating and extracting the last drop of fame” from our scientific high achievers but Haffkine has been “a missing figure”.

Schama’s account of the battles to control smallpox, cholera and the plague is certainly a departure for the acclaimed historian, who is renowned particularly for his explorations of the power of great art as an agent of change.

Here he turns his supple pen to suppurating pustules, flea-bitten rats and the dissection of mosquitos. He may be 78, but his prose has lost none of its sparkle. His eye is vivid — Queen Victoria wears a face of “unrisen dough” — his curiosity insatiable and he knows a good story.

For the heroes such as Haffkine must struggle not only against the microbial invaders who seek to penetrate our natural defences.

They must overcome the perhaps understandable resistance to injecting ourselves with “foreign bodies” and also entrenched establishments, such as the stiff-necked imperialists of the Indian Medical Service, at times the villains of the piece, who were sceptical of the new bacteriological research, believing that epidemic control was mainly a matter of sanitation.

Then, when Haffkine seems at the zenith of his career, he is brought down by an episode the book calls “akin to a medical Dreyfus case”. Those who have written about this episode “can all smell the antisemitism there. But it being the British, it’s never particularly explicit.”

Unlike the “raving antisemitism” that fired Dreyfus’s antagonists in France, in England “it’s more a sense — a lot of us have had this, I certainly have — of raised eyebrows and people sniggering behind their hand in the clubroom”. He didn’t want to “overstate” the prejudice against Haffkine, the cosmopolitan outsider, but “you can’t miss it”.

At the same time, the book also records a counter-current of contemporary philosemitism, expressed by figures such as the eminent surgeon Joseph, Baron Lister, who, in a testimonial to Haffkine at a dinner of the Maccabeans, a Jewish club, in London in 1899, proclaimed: “Yours is the noblest race on earth…”

Foreign Bodies owes its genesis to the Covid pandemic when Schama was sequestered under lockdown at his home in Westchester County, New York.

“I was writing a totally different book when the pandemic started, called Return of the Tribes, which was much more in my usual line, about the culture of extreme nationalism,” he said.

“I was writing about the perversion of historical record and the pursuit of nationalist myths. I spent a little time in Kosovo, I was particularly interested in [the Serbian dictator] Milosevic. I may well go back to the book. There was going to be a chapter on music in the 19th century — on Glinka, Smetana and Wagner inevitably — and one on landscape painting.

“When the pandemic struck, I thought ‘OK, this is one situation with any luck given the World Health Organisation [WHO], nationalism might actually yield, just out of collective self-interest, to collaboration on developing vaccines, distributing them, because viruses and bacteria are no respecters of borders.’ What a chump I was. Of course it didn’t play out like that.”

Delving into the history of the WHO, which was founded in 1948, led him further back to the international sanitation conferences of the 19th century — and to other characters who appear in the book, such as Dr Adrien Proust, the medical father of novelist Marcel, who “was the first person to say there must be an international public health organisation”.

While medical history was uncharted territory for him, he was encouraged by his wife Ginny, a now retired biologist, who did a spell at the famous Pasteur Institute in Paris. “A lot of us felt during the pandemic [it was] time to be a schoolkid again, time to do immunology for dummies, and time to learn something fresh,” he recalled.

Obviously reliant on digital resources to start, he was later able to go to Jerusalem and read Haffkine’s journals, now housed in The National Library of Israel, which are mostly written in French and English.

He adds: “There is nothing like being surrounded by the physical papers themselves.”

While many Jews were to abandon religion in pursuit of science, swapping their tzitzit for the white coat, Haffkine, fascinatingly, became more observant. In the early 1880s he helped to organise armed defence against a pogrom in Odesa, activism that got him arrested and thrown out of university.

One of his fellow activists, Hillel Yaffe, later emigrated to Palestine and played a key role in draining swamps to eradicate malaria.

Later, at that same Maccabeans dinner in London, where his medical exploits were fêted, Haffkine used the occasion to warn that his brothers and sisters back home were facing a policy of extermination.

Schama notes that when he left Mumbai in the early 1900s he packed his tefillin. There had been no record of him attending synagogue but Schama speculates that he may have been influenced by the remarkable Farha (Flora) Sassoon, a wealthy widow who was a scholar and philanthropist from the Baghdadi community there.

He said: “She is such an extraordinary woman and so charismatic.”

Sassoon was so pious that she travelled with a minyan of men in order to pray. Later on, Haffkine penned a series of articles in the JC in which he advocated the importance of tradition and the reconciliation of Orthodox Judaism with science. In this he was inspired by Maimonides.

And his concern for his people continued: the book tells of his visit to a socialist Zionist pig farm in the 1920s when the early Soviet government was willing to back Jewish agricultural projects in Crimea.

The history is bookended by an introduction and a conclusion that might well be standalone essays, bringing the broader themes up to date. Hostility to vaccines has parallels in the past, but has taken a new form.

“The last chapter of book is about how obdurate and obstinate, and how sometimes deviously weaponised the hostility and suspicion and paranoia about vaccination and the World Health Organisation [has become],” he said.

Campaigns are being run on the idea that “America was misled and exploited and the pandemic was really a pretext for the control of people’s lives. This is really horrifying. A lot of the big narratives in the book were indeed informed by the rise in this irrational hostility to being told what to do. I wanted the resonance to come through indirectly… until the end of the book where I put my cards on the table.”

I asked if a TV series of the book would follow, as has happened with a number of his books.

He said he has been working on a possible series, “along the lines of The History of Now but much more British” — referring to the BBC mini-series on the progress of cherished post-War ideas, which was shown last year.

But as for Foreign Bodies, he felt Haffkine’s story “would make a great piece of theatre. There are certain books where… you absolutely feel the presence of a dominant person like a lodger you are never going to get rid of. I know what Haffkine would be like if he walked through the door.

"How he would sound. I feel I know him, like a family member almost.”

And I wondered too about the final volume of his projected Jewish history trilogy. It is ten years since the TV series was screened and six since the second volume, which ended at 1900, appeared.

He had written an opening chapter, he revealed, about the “rediscovery” of Ethiopian Jewry, and drafted a second on the Uganda proposal (to set up a Jewish colony in East Africa in the early days of the Zionist movement).

But even if there is much to write about in the 20th century, it has become hard to assess the impact of everything that has happened — “the relationship between diaspora and Israel is a fast-moving thing.”

It would “seem completely crazy” now to try to take a retrospective overview, amid the current turbulence in Israel, where a “cultural civil war, a kulturkampf” is going on —“It is not the only one. There is one going on in America and certainly one in India” — and the fallout particularly within American Jewry.

“We are in such a volatile, emotionally torrential moment, I’d want that to settle down and take form.”

Besides which, there are certain things in the “classic narrative” that appear now less set. “Like Holocaust education being bound to be the antidote to antisemitism — but it hasn’t been the antidote to antisemitism at all… That’s another thing that’s turned out to be a terrible surprise.”

The final volume may end up as a series of “meditative essays”. But, he promises, “it will happen before the Messiah comes”.

‘Foreign Bodies: Pandemics, Vaccines and the Health of Nations’ is published by Simon & Schuster (£30)

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