The son of a Jewish schoolmaster, W. M. Haffkine was born in the prosperous Black Sea port of Odessa, but received most of his early education in Berdiansk. He joined the Gymnasium in 1872 and passed out of it seven years later. Immediately after he entered the Faculty of Natural Sciences in the University at Odessa. He completed his studies in 1882 with a dissertation on Zoology.
He became the curator of the Zoological Museum in Odessa, and would have remained there had he not been arrested as a member of a Jewish self-defence organisation after the assassination of Tsar Alexander. Released after a trial, he left for Switzerland in 1888 and worked as an assistant at the Geneva medical school for a year.
In 1889 he moved to Paris and started working in Pasteur's world famous laboratory. His initial work on producing a cholera inoculation was successful. He produced an attenuated form of the bacterium by exposing it to blasts of hot air. A series of animal trials confirmed the efficacy of the inoculation. In July 1892, Haffkine performed his first human test: on himself! During the Indian cholera epidemic of 1893, he travelled to Calcutta and introduced his new prophylactic inoculation. After initial criticism by the local medical bodies, it was widely accepted.
At the outbreak of the plague epidemic in Bombay in October 1896, Haffkine was summonned to the city. He improvised a laboratory in the Grant Medical College and set to work on preventive and curative measures. A curative serum was tested in four months, but was not found to be reliable. Emphasis moved to a preventive vaccine using dead bacteria. A form useful enough for human trials was ready by January 1897, and tested on volunteers at the Byculla jail the next month. Use of the vaccine in the field started immediately.
Recognition followed quickly. The Aga Khan provided a building to house Haffkine's "Plague Research Laboratory" and other prominent citizens of Bombay supported his researches. However, the medical community was not very sympathetic towards him. In 1902 the vaccine apparently caused nineteen cases of tetanus. An inquiry commission indicted Haffkine, who was relieved of the position of the Director of the Plague Laboratory. A review of this commission's report by the Lister Institute in England overturned this decision, put the blame squarely on the doctor who administered the injections, and exonerated Haffkine. Since the Bombay post was already occupied, Haffkine moved to Calcutta, where he worked until his retirement in 1914.
Then he returned to France and settled in Boulogne-sur-Seine, and occassionally wrote for medical journals. In 1925, when the Plague Laboratory in Bombay was renamed the "Haffkine Institute", he wrote that "...the work at Bombay absorbed the best years of my life... ". He revisited Odessa in 1927, but could not adapt to the tremendous changes after the revolution. He moved to Lausanne in 1928 and remained there for the last two years of his life.