Last Tuesday, the 28th, was the 100th anniversary of Jonas Salk’s birth. Salk’s polio vaccine turned the tide against a particularly vicious and destructive disease; because of Salk’s work, polio exists today only in a few Third World enclaves. If the new anti-vaccine fetish is brought under control, polio will be completely eradicated in the next few years.
Salk was a very great man, and — through a trick of fate — was a very great man who is very well known. Everyone knows Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin; almost no one remembers Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders. People know Pasteur but not Harvey, Patton but not Bradley, Feynman but not Pauli. Some men are remembered, some aren’t. It’s just one of those things. Jonas Salk was born in 1914; the Jonas Salk of the 19th century was born in 1860, and was named Waldemar Haffkine.
Like Salk, Haffkine was a Russian Jew. Unlike Salk, he had the great misfortune of actually living in Russia. In 1879, Haffkine was a brilliant young biologist; he was also a member of the Odessa League of Self-Defense. During a pogrom, he tried to stop a group of Russian army cadets from destroying a Jew’s home; he was injured, arrested, and imprisoned. Future Nobel laureate Élie Metchnikoff, who counted Haffkine as a protégé, intervened on his behalf; Haffkine was released and allowed to travel west. In 1889, he settled in Paris and began to work on vaccines under the aegis of Louis Pasteur.
The 19th century was punctuated by cholera outbreaks that killed tens of millions of people. That was where Haffkine directed his work. By 1892, he had a working cholera vaccine; he knew it worked because he performed the first human test on himself. The cholera situation was especially bad in India — about 30 million Indians had died — so Haffkine moved his lab to the subcontinent. A local Muslim group decided that India didn’t need help from Jewish doctors and tried to murder him; nonetheless, Haffkine succeeded in performing 55,000 vaccinations and stanching the epidemic.
According to Dr. William Derek Foster, Haffkine produced “the first vaccinations for bacterial disease in man the utility of which seemed reasonably certain” — that is, Haffkine’s cholera vaccine was the first vaccine that worked. It paved the way for Salk and every other great preventive-medicine man. The great surgeon and surgical innovator Sir Joseph Lister described Waldemar Haffkine as “a savior of humanity.” But the cholera vaccine was only Haffkine’s opening act.
As India’s cholera epidemic started to ease, an epidemic of bubonic plague broke out in Bombay. Haffkine was asked to help, on an emergency basis. Needless to say, he agreed. In fact, he worked at such a breakneck pace that two of his assistants quit and a third had a nervous breakdown. After just three months — three months — Haffkine had a vaccine, which (once again) he tested on himself. Over the next three years (three years), 4 million Indians were inoculated and an incalculable number of lives saved.
In 1999, statistician Joseph Chang published a paper regarding the exponential growth of total ancestor count, generation to generation (two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, 16 great-greats). After about 40 generations of regression, you get to a generation of a trillion ancestors. Chang proposed, mathematically speaking, that after x number of generations, your ancestors included every single person on earth who had successfully reproduced. How many people would have died if Waldemar Haffkine hadn’t starting saving lives when he did? Diseases spread even more quickly than family trees. To call Haffkine a “savior of humanity” is to hit the nail right on the head.
There are two points here: First, America is a wonderful, remarkable, indispensable place; Jonas Salk didn’t have to worry about pogroms. This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this America has saved a lot of lives; see admittance policy re huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Consequently, Salk, and Feynman and Pauli, and Einstein and Wigner and Gell-Mann and Friedman, et cetera et cetera et cetera, ended up here and not in France or Spain or Russia. So it was a win–win, so to speak.
Second — for God’s sake, get your kids vaccinated.
— Josh Gelernter writes weekly for NRO and is a regular contributor to The Weekly Standard.