Although a pandemic like COVID-19 has been rare, exactly 124 years ago, the bubonic plague in Bombay (now Mumbai) resulted in the loss of millions of lives.
But with time and incessant efforts of medical health providers and several Good Samaritans, the bubonic plague was contained. The contribution of these silent heroes whose names are although lost in the annals of history, is what helped the entire country survive.
However, history still remembers three prominent individuals for being instrumental in combating this bubonic plague — Sayajirao Gaekwad III — the then Maharaja of Baroda, Ukranian bacteriologist Dr Waldemar Haffkine and freedom fighter Abbas Tyabji.
Haffkine’s cure for the Bubonic Plague
Over a century ago, in the summer of 1896, the bubonic plague travelled through the naval trade routes to enter Bombay. A sprawling city with a large population living in thatched roof houses or community tenement housing, also known as chawls, allowed for the rapid spread through wild rats.
These rats would carry plague-infected fleas from home to home, spreading it among humans through physical contact.
And much like the COVID-19 situation, the initial symptoms of fever provided a clouded diagnosis for malaria or typhus. A person infected by this would incubate the disease for almost a week only after which other symptoms like swelling of lymph nodes, near armpits and the groin area, known as buboes would begin to show. In this case, the infected individual would usually die within the next 48 hours and the mortality rate was as high as 60%.
It was then that the colonial government set up a plague research committee, consisting of surgeon Dr R Manser and EN Hankin, a bacteriologist from Awadh (then Oudh). This committee then called Haffkine to Bombay from Calcutta to establish a laboratory in the Parel area and find a cure. He was then made the director of the Plague research lab there and the institute in Parel was named after him as the Haffkine Institute.
His work which continued for almost a year was followed by a number of trials. Finally, Haffkine decided to take the route for preventive inoculation, which involves the process of injecting a pathogen into a healthy body to provoke the immune system thus immunising it against the disease.
After having extracted the bacteria from the infected rats he successfully grew more in meat broth (unlike scientists who use Petri dishes now) under a layer of coconut oil or homemade pure ghee. The lab-cultured bacteria known as Haffkine stalactites were allowed to grow for almost two weeks, and eventually weakened by heating.
Once the weakened bacteria was injected in uninfected human bodies, the antibodies could fight them effectively.
However, despite this achievement the big hurdle was to find volunteers, as a majority of the population resisted inoculation.
Setting a positive example
News of Haffkine’s progress with the inoculation and his priors in developing vaccines against cholera and the plague, by testing them on himself, had promise and Maharaja Sayajirao III invited him to come to Baroda to carry out the injections.
In the face of resistance from locals in Bombay, this was a welcome relief for Haffkine who arrived in Baroda in 1897.
At the time, in order to set a positive example for the rest of the community, Abbas Tyabji, who was the Chief Justice of Baroda state and a friend of the Maharaja as well as Mahatma Gandhi, volunteered his family members for vaccination.
An image from the family album records the day, when Tyabji took his daughter Sharifa and her little cousin Hatim to the inoculation centre.
In a year, the plague in Bombay had spread its influence in various parts of the country and Baroda was one of them.
Through his family he wanted to inspire others into embracing this medical solution to the plague, explains his great-granddaughter Saman Habib, in this report. Tyabji’s daughter Sharifa, after the inoculation, was not only healthy but also followed in her father’s footsteps to become the president of the All India Women’s Conference in 1935.
Currently, a chief scientist at Lucknow’s Central Drug Research Institute, Saman, speaking about the widespread resistance to the vaccine, told TOI , “This was mostly because western medicine was not very much trusted by locals, more so since it was the British rule. But Haffkine had made the vaccine in just three months and he already had a successful cholera vaccine to his name.”
This was just the beginning of the larger change that followed. His medical biography written by retired physiologist from King’s College, London, Barbara J Hagwood, writes how Haffkine, following his success with the volunteers, travelled to interior parts of Baroda, to a small village called Undera, where the plague had taken its worst form.
“In a village of 1,031 people, half the members were inoculated and a matching half left untreated to act as a control group. Six weeks later, Haffkine returned to Undera and visited each house where plague had occurred since the inoculation. In all, 28 families had been affected: 71 of the inoculated suffered eight attacks with three deaths, while 64 untreated persons suffered 27 attacks with 26 deaths. Clearly, the vaccine was providing considerable if not total protection against a plague attack,” Hagwood writes in the biography.
Haffkine’s experiments on himself and the volunteers eventually proved successful by reducing the plague’s mortality rate by 97.4%.
If not for Haffkine and people like Tyabji and Sayajirao III, the epidemic would have continued to claim thousands of more lives in the following years. In the present day, as we mirror a century-old situation waiting for a vaccine for COVID-19, it’s important to remind ourselves of the contributions of such people and how their efforts to do good continues to show the light at the end of the dark tunnel.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)
Featured image: Diana Charles/Facebook