Haffkine and Saklatvala: epidemics, vaccines and revolutionaries

Submitted by AWL on 2 April, 2021 - 4:51
Waldemar Haffkine in Bombay, 1890s

Workers' Liberty recently published a pamphlet about Indian socialist and anti-imperialist, and 1920s UK MP, Shapurji Saklatvala. (You can buy it here.) The pamphlet explains:

His youngest daughter and biographer Sehri speculated that the seeds of revolutionary politics were planted in Saklatvala's mind when he volunteered to help Ukrainian Jewish bacteriologist Waldemar Haffkine combat the plague which killed hundreds of Bombay's people every week for years at the turn of the century. Haffkine was a former populist-socialist and political refugee from Czarism. As Saklatvala would later recount in Parliament, his first meeting with the doctor was the city's European Club: he found himself barred due to his race, and was only let in at the back of the building.

The BBC recently published a profile of Haffkine (pictured above in Calcutta in 1894), describing him as "the vaccine pioneer the world forgot". Like Saklatvala, Haffkine was no stranger to national and racial oppression, and not only in Czarist Russia: his fall from grace in British-controlled India was connected to antisemitism.

The spring 2021 newsletter of the London Socialist Historians Group included an article explaining how as a young man the future Communist organiser and politician worked to help the former Russian revolutionary save lives in an epidemic, taking some inspiration for today. Read it here. The author, Christian Høgsbjerg, is currently working on a longer piece on the same subject.

For more detail, see the book by Saklatvala's daughter Sehri which Høgsbjerg cites, p20 on. See also our article 'Lessons from past pandemics'.

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