Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Excerpt: Room 000—Narratives Of The Bombay Plague

The Plague Commission published its report.

Haffkine read it with growing despair.

Everything, everything he had done had been discredited.

The Dangling Prussian had done his work well.

From the earliest days in Room 000, till the near factory-like production of the prophylactic at Khusru Lodge, Haffkine’s methods and results had been criticized. The standardization of the dose was called into question. Reports of bacterial contamination of the prophylactic were stressed. The soundness of his judgment was doubted, the ability of his workers denigrated. All this was as nothing when compared to the critique of every trial he had carried out. From the Byculla House of Correction to Undhera, Lanauli, Daman, and Hubli.

Wright dragged through fifty pages a pigheaded quarrel over statistics. His comments insulted Haffkine’s integrity. His probity was doubted at every point, his results counter-checked, his statistical methods dismissed as self-serving. Haffkine’s prophylactic was not under attack. It was Haffkine himself.

The report on the prophylactic began with a putdown, clarifying that Haffkine’s work was unoriginal, no more than an exploration of the work accomplished by Yersin and Roux in 1895. It concluded, patronizingly:

Mr Haffkine’s work on anti-plague inoculation, while not based on any new scientific principle, constitutes, it seems to us, a great practical achievement in the field of preventive medicine.

With better standardization, with more accurate dosing, with better people outreach—and with more reliable observers, the inoculations were to continue. No doubt under Bannerman’s direction, Haffkine fumed, and reached for his pen. He was not going to take this quietly.

Haffkine also read the Commission’s assessment of the work of Simond, Lustig and Yersin. These men of science were discredited too. But their work would be used. It would be carried on by the very people the Commission had appointed to judge them. These men would not be called upon to explain themselves. This work, published in the journals that matter, would establish the ideas that originated in Room 000, in Arthur Road Hospital, in Khusru Lodge and in Simond’s rat cages.

And this version would establish the science of plague beyond controversy.

When the Aga Khan and Haffkine’s old friend Baron Edmond Rothschild were discussing the possibility of approaching Abdul Hamid, the Sultan of Turkey with a request for a Jewish settlement in Palestine, another Rothschild made a contribution to the understanding of plague.

Charles Rothschild took a vacation from the family bank in London to pursue his passion, entomology. In Egypt and Sudan, he came across several new species of Siphonaptera, or, to use their Victorian label, suctorial insects. He named them romantically: Pulexcleopatræ, Pulexnubicus and Pulexcheopis.

Pulexcheopis was found at Shedi, in Sudan. The hosts were Gerbilusrobustus, Arvicanthustesticularis and similar rodents. The year was 1901.

The following year Rothschild met a young man from India. This was the same IMS officer whom Almroth Wright had employed to investigate the work done in Room 000. Fresh from medical school, and with a Pathology Prize for added assurance, Captain William Liston had tested samples of Haffkine’s prophylactic and found them contaminated. He found Haffkine’s results of the prophylactic inconclusive. Wright relied entirely on Liston’s evidence. It established Haffkine’s methods as arbitrary and unscientific.

A year later, Liston was appointed to work at the Bombay Plague Laboratory, under Haffkine’s eye. Bannerman, now the Director, was not very enthusiastic either.

Liston was undeterred. Sent to Netley for training in bacteriology, he used the time to also work for his M.D. degree. Covered with academic honours, he set off to meet Charles Rothschild.

Liston had brought with him a collection of common Indian fleas. He wanted Rothschild to identify them.

It was fashionable to dismiss Simond’s findings, but Liston ignored popular opinion. There was science in Simond’s ideas and he was determined to explore it.

Rothschild showed him the differences between fleas in rats, cats, and dogs. He compared Liston’s rat fleas with known species and found they were the same as his recent find in Sudan—Pulexcheopis.

He pointed out that it was not enough to identify the flea. What about the rats? Did Liston know enough about the rats of Bombay?

Liston busied himself, finding out.

On his return to Bombay, Liston’s new knowledge proved useful almost immediately. In February, on Friday the 13th, he read a paper on Indian fleas before the Bombay Medical and Physical Society. It discussed the possibility of the rat flea being the missing link in the chain of plague transmission. The paper made Liston famous. It was published almost at once in the Indian Lancet. Editorials in medical journals expressed relief that plague research was in capable hands at last.

Excerpted from Room 000: Narratives Of The Bombay Plague (495 pages, 599), with permission from Pan Macmillan.

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