Alexandre Yersin and his adventures in Vietnam

This essay was written by William Burns and was first published in the 2003 Mill Hill Essays.

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Night falls and the electric lights flicker and go off as another power cut begins. On the banks of the Saigon River, ships are being repaired for tomorrow’s run downstream to the Mekong Delta. Welding torches applied to leaky hulls flash through the dark like the mortar detonations of a previous era. In Yersin Street, motor scooters and bicycle taxis weave around the kiosks selling noodle soup, baguettes, coffee and Lucky Strike cigarettes. During a recent visit to Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon, as it is still unofficially known), I pondered the name of Yersin Street. In Vietnamese it is Duong Yersin; in French it is Rue Yersin, for Vietnam was once a colony of France. Like streets in many of Vietnam’s towns and cities, it is named after the Swiss-French microbiologist, Alexandre Yersin. Yersin is one of the few Europeans to be widely admired in modern Vietnam. He lived in that country for most of his adult life and founded hospitals and medical laboratories that continue to serve the community sixty years after his death. His house in Nha Trang, 200 miles up the coast from Saigon, has become a national shrine: Lau Ong Nam, or Home of the Fifth Uncle (the First Uncle is Ho Chi Minh, the man who led Vietnam to independence from France).

In microbiology Yersin is best known for discovering the plague bacterium (called Yersinia pestis, in his honour). But behind the bacterium lies the man. Delve deeper into Yersin’s biography and it soon becomes clear that, after his early conventional training, microbiology became almost a hobby for him. Much of his time was spent travelling around South East Asia, not in the sense of the modern backpacker, but as a suitably rip-roaring 19th Century adventurer. Remarkably, his exploits are well documented because he wrote weekly to his mother in Switzerland; nearly 1000 of these letters survive.

Alexandre Yersin was born on 22 September 1863 in the village of Lavaux, on the shores of Lake Geneva. After education in Switzerland and Germany, he moved to Paris to study medicine at the Hôtel Dieu, a large hospital near the Cathedral of Nôtre Dame. He was 22 years old and this was the height of the Belle Epoque. Paris was the industrial and mercantile centre of an empire spanning Asia, the Caribbean and north and central Africa. There was excitement, wealth and excess everywhere. New movements in visual art were upsetting the established worldview. Vincent van Gogh arrived in the city in 1886. Impressionism had been gaining ground since the 1860s and painters like Monet, Cezanne, Renoir, Pisarro and Morisot were busy capturing the spirit of the age. At the same time biological science was undergoing a revolution of equal importance, a revolution that was about to captivate the young medical student Alexandre Yersin. This was the ‘Golden Age of Bacteriology’ when the causes of many common microbial infections were being identified. Louis Pasteur was at the height of his powers. His early work had shown microorganisms to be key players in many natural processes, including disease.

Yersinia Pestis and plague

Yersin discovered the plague bacterium while investigating an outbreak of the disease in Hong Kong in June 1894. Yersinia pestis, as the organism is now known, has been responsible for several epoch-making pandemics, most famously the ‘Black Death’ of the 13th-15th Centuries that probably killed one third of the European population. Y. pestis usually resides in rodents but can be transmitted to people by fleabites. If the bacterium gets into the lungs (pneumonic plague), the disease becomes highly infectious and rapidly fatal. Today, plague is rare (1000-3000 cases worldwide per year) and is easily treated with antibiotics. However, there is still no effective vaccine and concerns have grown that terrorists could use the bacterium in a biological attack.

In 1885 he established that vaccination could save the lives of people infected with rabies. Now his laboratory at the Ecole Normale Supérieure (and later in the purpose-built ‘Pasteur Institute’) was the centre of the scientific universe, drawing young arrivistes like Emile Roux and Albert Calmette (who, together with Camille Guérin, is famous for developing the tuberculosis vaccine, Bacille Calmette-Guérin, or BCG).

Yersin was highly ambitious and was propelled into this circle as an assistant to Roux with a clinical attachment at the Hôpital des Enfants-malades. By 1888 he had completed a doctoral thesis on septicaemic tuberculosis.

Experiments with another microorganism, Corynebacterium diphtheriae, the causative agent of diphtheria, showed for the first time that a toxin, a toxic chemical produced by a bacterium, could cause a disease. It looked as though Yersin was committed to a career as a microbiologist. But like many of his scientific contemporaries, he tired of Louis Pasteur’s rampant egotism that robbed subordinates of intellectual freedom and took most of the credit for discoveries. Yersin also yearned for boyish adventure beyond the confines of Europe: ‘I desired to follow in the footsteps of [David] Livingstone,’ he wrote, referring to the famous British explorer.

Yersin asked for leave from the Pasteur Institute and applied to the Messageries Maritimes (Freight Shipping Company) for the position of ship’s doctor. On 5 March 1890, he went for an interview at the Paris offices of the Messageries, clutching a letter of recommendation from Louis Pasteur. With such a famous referee, Yersin was given the job immediately although he had never been outside Europe or even travelled on a ship. Roux was annoyed at the loss of his young research assistant and according to Yersin continued ‘to make his same grimace.’ In September 1890, Yersin boarded the train for Marseille to take his first posting with the Messageries on the steamer Oxus, bound for Saigon. He arrived in Saigon on 15 October and was reassigned to the Volga, for the run to Manila, in the Philippines. The Volga was not yet ready to sail, so Yersin had some time to explore his new and unfamiliar surroundings. During this first brief stay in Saigon, he suffered from all the culture shock familiar to a modern tourist.

The culture shock must have been both profound and captivating for him, not least because of the distinctive Vietnamese culture with its curious mix of Chinese and French influences. Vietnam has had a long and often hostile relationship with its powerful neighbour to the north, China. Chinese domination was absolute for about 1000 years, until the 1400s, and it persists today in the Confucian outlook on life. From the 19th Century until 1954, the French held sway over what are now Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam. The colony was known as Indochina and was intended to rival the splendours of British India, to be the Perle de l’Extrême Orient (Pearl of the Far East). Pavement cafés and breakfasting on baguettes and strong coffee remain popular even now, when few people are old enough to remember living under the Tricolore. When Yersin arrived in 1890 the colonists were in full pursuit of the mission civilisatrice (civilising mission). The native population was subjected to extraordinary brutality, even by the excessive standards of the time. Plantations and public works used vast numbers of Vietnamese as slave labourers. Many brave Vietnamese stood up to French rule, but dissent was effectively contained by imprisonment, exile and the guillotine. It is clear that Yersin turned a blind eye. However, the record shows that in his personal dealings with the Vietnamese he was fairer and less racist than many Europeans. He also seems to have realised the inherent injustice of colonialism. After Vietnamese bandits robbed him, he wrote that ‘the French have always stolen from the people in Indochina, so it might be quite good that they can steal a bit of my money back.’

Aboard the Volga, Yersin’s duties were undemanding, his only tasks to obtain medical certificates in Saigon and, while at sea, to inspect the crew daily for signs of ill health. Yersin had plenty of time to learn navigation and cartography under the tutelage of the master mariners on board, skills that would be put to use later during surveying expeditions in the Indochinese interior. He also learned Vietnamese so that he could communicate with the sailors, who were mostly natives. In early 1891 the Messageries cancelled the regular Manila run and Yersin was transferred to the domestic service between Saigon in the south and Haiphong in the north. This allowed him to explore Vietnam more thoroughly and he bought a canoe for surveying trips. During journeys to remote villages he treated the sick free of charge. He was clearly a humane man because he wrote: ‘I could never ask a sick human being to pay me for the care that I have given him.’ In the autumn of 1891, Yersin’s contract with the Messageries ended and he began exploring full-time, leading a major expedition from Nha Trang to Phnom Penh in Cambodia.

Yersin returned to Europe for the winter of 1892, to see his family in Switzerland and to meet former colleagues in Paris, where ‘the weather … is terrible, sad and cold.’ He had decided that he could no longer countenance a scientific career in France, and not just because of the chilly climate. ‘Life in a laboratory there [Paris] would seem impossible to me after having tasted the freedom and life of the open air. Scientific research is very interesting, but Mr Pasteur was perfectly correct when he said that, short of being a genius, one must be rich to work in a laboratory and avoid a miserable existence.’ Emile Roux had evidently been hard at work preparing a glorious welcome for Yersin, perhaps in the hope of persuading his friend to stay and restart laboratory work. At Roux’s instigation, the French Geographic Society gave Yersin an award for his Phnom Penh expedition. The highlight of the Paris visit, however, seems to have been dinner with his old boss, Louis Pasteur, ‘who takes great delight in the account of my voyages.’

In January 1893, Yersin returned to Saigon. Roux had finally come to terms with Yersin’s desire to travel, and the two colleagues had parted in mutual understanding. Things were looking good professionally too, as Yersin had been given a permanent commission with the Colonial Health Service. One of the quirks of the job was the requirement to wear a uniform and behave with parade ground ceremony. Yersin couldn’t stand it. ‘What is very annoying is that those with less rank must salute me, and that I must salute all my superiors. I can no longer go outside without being saluted every few steps by soldiers. I have to avoid constantly getting lost in my thoughts so as not to pass in front of a colonel or captain without noticing him.’ Partly to escape from the formality of Saigon, Yersin organised mapping expeditions to the unexplored hills and jungles of central Vietnam. His expeditions were beset by hardship, with constant rain, muddy paths and flooding. Along the way, he bartered Swiss music boxes for the elephants he needed to carry provisions and equipment.

On one of his trips, Yersin tumbled headfirst into an armed rebellion against the French. On 18 June 1893 fifty-six Vietnamese prisoners escaped from Phan Ry jail and joined with rebel chiefs in a push to overthrow the provincial government. The French managed to resist, but the rebels got away and regrouped. Still determined to oust their colonial masters, the insurgents planned to cross the mountains to Phan Rang, for a second coup attempt. Unaware of these dramatic events, Yersin arrived in the village of Bo Kraan a week later. The villagers told him that thirty rebels had passed through the previous night. With characteristic recklessness, Yersin decided to stop the uprising himself! He left Bo Kraan the next day with his most loyal Vietnamese collaborators and trekked for twelve hours through the monsoon, eventually catching up with the rebels in the village of Pho Tan Ngam. His plan was to take their leaders prisoner, thereby drawing the sting from the revolt.

Yersin cornered the chiefs in a hut, but at the last moment his Vietnamese colleagues ran away and he was left facing the enemy alone! The only surviving description of what followed is from Yersin himself, so it is difficult to decide whether this is just a tall tale. According to Yersin, he threatened them with his army revolver but they charged forward before he could fire. In the ensuing chaos, Yersin received a sabre slash to his right hand and a crippling blow from a rifle butt. Luckily for him the rebels then decided to leave the scene without killing him, possibly fearing that he was the advanced guard of a large French detachment. Vietnamese militia in the pay of the French eventually arrested the rebels ten days later near Nha Trang. Yersin took a photograph of the chiefs just before they were executed and was impressed by their calm dignity in the face of death. With a grisly attention to detail, Yersin recorded that four sabre blows were needed to decapitate Thouk, the rebel leader.

Yersin rose to the highest ranks of the French administration in Indochina. He made research trips as far afield as Mumbai in India. He coordinated a network of medical laboratories and vaccination centres throughout Vietnam and combated malaria by distributing quinine to the native population. He worked for the Indochina Meteorological Service producing charts and tide tables essential for navigation in Vietnamese coastal waters. He also introduced rubber cultivation to the colony, giving rise to the plantations that brought gigantic profits to French companies like Michelin and considerable misery to the Vietnamese forced to toil on them. But all this is another story!

On 1 March 1943, aged seventy-nine, Yersin died, ill and alone in Nha Trang. His comfortable ’19th Century’ world had already started collapsing. In 1940, Indochina was ignominiously surrendered to the Japanese. After the end of World War II the French returned to reclaim what they considered to be their rightful inheritance. However, after eight years of fighting they were thrown out and the independent states of Cambodia, Laos and North and South Vietnam rose from the old Indochina. Genocide overtook Cambodia; civil war washed over Laos; and the catastrophic intervention of the USA in the Vietnamese conflict destroyed most of both countries. It is certain that Alexandre Yersin would have been shocked by the night that engulfed his adopted country, a night from which it is only now beginning to emerge.


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