November 4: It is a dirty and dimly-lit room, located on the first floor of the government-run JJ Hospital at Byculla, Mumbai. It includes a table, a chair and pieces of equipment occasionally used by the hospital staff, and is used as a safe refuge by tired employees looking for a quiet corner to doze off.
History was made over a hundred years ago in this room, when a German bacteriologist called Robert Koch discovered the vaccine against the tuberculosis and cholera bacteria, in it. But there seems to be no sense of pride in keeping that memory alive as an inspiration, seeing the terrible neglect the room has fallen into, says a report in ‘The Indian Express’.
In 1893 a deadly cholera epidemic broke out in Mumbai. Cholera is an acute bacterial infection of the intestine transmitted through contaminated food or drinking-water, as well as by person-to-person contact through the faecal-oral route. The bacteria can spread rapidly where living conditions are crowded and water sources unprotected and where there is no safe disposal of faeces.
The Indian sub-continent saw several cholera epidemics breaking out in several of its regions in the 19th century, and claiming hundreds of thousands of lives in the process. The Mumbai outbreak was one among several.
It was to research the cholera vaccine and help combat the disease that Koch came to Mumbai during this period. The room at JJ Hospital was to become his laboratory for the next eight years. It was here that he discovered that the bacteria causing cholera and tuberculosis (a contagious disease which spreads through the air) could be harnessed for a cure. This helped in the discovery of the vaccine that was to give a new lease of life to hundreds of thousands of lives.
Sadly enough, it is rumoured that Koch himself died of suspected cholera in 1910.
Koch’s room is not the only one in JJ Hospital to have a historic association to it. Room 000 at the same hospital was used by Jewish microbiologist Dr Waldemar Mordecai Haffkine, at around the same period as Koch. Haffkine developed the plague vaccine. He is believed to have once said, “The work at Bombay absorbed the best years of my life.”
Haffkine was summoned to Mumbai during the outbreak of the bubonic plague ( a frighteningly contagious disease caused by rats ) in the city in 1896. He began to work in the laboratory set up at the hospital for the same purpose. In 1897, he tested his plague vaccine on inmates of the Byculla jail, successfully.
Haffkine moved to the Plague Research Laboratory housed in a building at a suburb of Mumbai called Parel. It was renamed the Haffkine Institute in 1925.
Today, most students of the Grant Medical College on the JJ Hospital campus are not even aware that these scientists once graced their campus and achieved significant medical breakthroughs.
Forget other Indians, even JJ Hospital authorities do not seem to be interested in preserving the rooms where the two scientists did their life’s most important work.