Alexandre Yersin: Plague Conqueror and White Colonizer

Michael G. Vann

California State University at Sacramento

 

Alexandre Yersin, who identified the plague bacillus and worked on the vaccine, was a strange and perplexing man. He was also a genius. Appropriately, Patrick Deville’s Plague and Cholera (Peste et Choléra) is a strange and perplexing book. It too has moments of genius. One can’t deny the literary merits of this Prix Femina-winning novel (also short-listed for the Prix Goncourt). Like Yersin, the novel is intellectually curious, free-thinking, and nonconformist. But both Yersin and Plague and Cholera are deeply problematic. Just as Yersin frustrated those around him, Plague and Cholera may frustrate readers, especially in an era when #decolonize trends on Twitter and statues of great men with colonial pasts are falling.[1] Deville offers a romantic portrait of a brilliant white man who sought adventure and wealth in the era of high imperialism. If the book perpetuates the colonial ideology of la mission civilisatrice and fails to critique France’s imperialist past, it offers an undeniably engaging portrait of one of France’s scientific heroes in the fight against pandemic disease but also suffers from the “great man in history” trope of popular writing.

           

Plague and Cholera defies easy classification. Even the title is odd. Yersin made crucial discoveries in plague research but had little to do with cholera. Ironically, it was the French who brought these two diseases to colonial Vietnam. Using the Institut Pasteur’s archives, Deville offers a generally accurate (but incomplete) portrait of this extraordinary man, similar to other “Conqueror of the Plague” narratives.[2] With chapters alternating between Yersin’s final years and Yersin’s peripatetic life in Switzerland, Germany, France, Vietnam, Cambodia, China, East Africa, and India, readers will enjoy the twists and turns of his fascinating trajectory. In lieu of dialogue Deville works in direct (but uncited) quotations from the vast collection of Yersin’s correspondence and decades of intense journal-keeping. While Plague and Cholera displays many elements of a traditional biography and is grounded in research, it remains a work of fiction. We might call it a fictionalized biography.

Deville likes to experiment. His 2011 prize-winning Kampuchéa has been classified as a novel but it is something more. That book combines contemporary impressions of Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos with portraits of historical figures from the colonial era, the trials of Khmer Rouge leaders, and a searing condemnation of the crimes of the Pol Pot regime. With Plague and Cholera, Deville’s prose frequently shades into the poetic. In a series of surreal passages, the author imagines himself as a “ghost from the future” haunting Yersin. In one confusing scene, Deville imagines himself in disguise as a press event in Dalat, Vietnam in the 1930s. When his cell phone rings, he is arrested as a Communist spy. As he explains that he is from the future and warns of the coming war, the police institutionalize Deville. This cheeky moment is one of the least successful sections of the novel.

Deville is tone deaf when it comes to imperialism, ignoring decades of post-colonial scholarship. Fascinated by imperialism’s explorers and world-travelers, he favorably compares Yersin to Pierre Loti and Joseph Conrad – who portrayed the tropics as a place where a white man could create his own private kingdom, served by loyal but savage people – and other colonial adventurers including Livingston, Mayréna, and Rimbaud. Apparently, Deville has never heard of Edward Said.

Plague and Cholera follows two streams that converge with Yersin’s death. In the opening scene an aged Yersin catches the last flight out of Paris in May 1940. Deville then harks back to Morges, Switzerland, where we are introduced to Yersin senior, himself a scientist, who died several months before his son’s birth.[3] After meeting the widow and her daughters (Yersin’s lifelong pen pals), we follow Yersin to school in Germany and then to the Institut Pasteur in Paris where he wrote a doctoral dissertation on tuberculosis. Deville paints Yersin’s years in Marburg as lonely. Rejected by the Germans who spent their time drinking and dueling, his only friend was an equally alienated Jewish student. Later on, Louis Pasteur would send Yersin to Berlin to study with Robert Koch. According to Deville, the French medical hero used the young scientist to spy on his rival. Franco-German rivalry is a recurrent theme in the book. After his Berlin espionage, Yersin became a naturalized French citizen, co-authored articles with Pierre Roux (one of Pasteur’s closest collaborators) on diphtheria, and then conducted research in Normandy. In Deville’s romantic portrait it was in Normandy that Yersin fell in love with the sea.

         

Back in Paris, Yersin suddenly left the institute to become a ship’s doctor. The stunned Pasteurians decided to keep him in the fold, hoping that he would resume his research. However, Yersin spent the next few years on ships working the Saigon-Manila and Saigon-Haiphong lines. He explored the wetlands of Vietnam and the Philippines, hiring boats and local boys as guides to observe the tropical arroyos and mangrove swamps. He repeatedly told Pasteur’s circle that he was done with laboratory research. They politely dismissed this notion. Having experienced the idyllic Nha Trang, Yersin built a house in this backwater fishing village. There he offered his medical services to the locals and explored the mountains. His hikes became increasingly ambitious, eventually crossing the Annamese Cordillera, descending into the Mekong watershed, and arriving in Phnom Penh. He observed the flora and fauna and mapped uncharted territory claimed by the French. However, he refused to join the Mission Pavie, preferring his independence. Yersin discovered the Lang Biang plateau, future home of the Dalat hill station. Despite a good rapport with the tribal highlanders, he almost died in a nighttime skirmish with a band of brigands. Slashed with a machete and stabbed in the chest with a spear, he was left for dead in the jungle. Rescued in the morning, he guided the removal of the spear. When the bandit chief was arrested, Yersin photographed his beheading. Yersin recounted his adventures in a series of articles.[4]

       

Yersin joined the colonial health services in 1892 and, because of his excellent work on tuberculosis and diphtheria in Paris, was dispatched to China in 1894. The bubonic plague had devastated Canton and was wreaking havoc in Hong Kong. It was here that Yersin earned his place in history. To the consternation of the Parisians, he was initially unavailable as he was trekking in the mountains. When he returned to Nha Trang, he accepted the mission and borrowed lab equipment in Saigon. After Saigon, he stopped in Hanoi where he was warned by a French doctor to be careful with the British as they resented France’s recent colonial acquisitions. He arrived in Hong Kong in mid-June to heavy rains and rising temperatures. Yersin was stunned by the number of bodies piling up in the streets. British soldiers collected them as fast as they could. Lazarettes quickly filled with the sick, who soon died. The mortality rate ran about 95%. Panicked British soldiers used lime and sulfuric acid to sterilize the city, burned the possessions of infected Chinese, and sealed off contaminated neighborhoods with brick walls. Yersin observed this chaos, taking photographs and noting rats emerging from the sewers and dying in the streets.

Yersin was there to help. But as a Pasteurian, he was far from welcome in the British colony. Even though the governor Sir William Robinson had officially invited Yersin, Dr. James Lowson (Deville misspells the famous colonial physician’s name as “Lawson”), the Francophobic Scottish doctor in charge of the plague response team, viewed the naturalized Frenchman as an intruder. Lowson denied Yersin access to the Kennedy Town Hospital’s research facilities. To make matters worse, Kitasato Shibasaburō, a Koch protégé from Berlin, was working on the mysterious disease. Thus, Yersin and Kitasato became proxies in the Pasteur-Koch rivalry. At this point Yersin could have left the British colony and returned to Nha Trang, but against all odds, Yersin persevered and triumphed. Here we see Yersin’s genius and tenacity in action. He found an ally in a Francophile Italian priest who helped him build a wood and thatch laboratory on the grounds of the Alice Memorial Hospital. They bribed morgue guards to look the other way as they took samples from corpses already covered in lime. Deville imagines the excitement of the scientist as he removes buboes from the deceased. Buboes were the horribly swollen lymph node glands which caused pain in the neck, armpits, and groin of plague victims and gave the malady its name. Placing samples from the buboes under his microscope, Yersin quickly identified the plague bacteria, wrote up a report, and dispatched it to Paris. In just a few days he earned his title as “The Conqueror of the Plague.” When the Institut Pasteur’s journal printed his findings that September, he became internationally famous. However, Kitasato challenged Yersin’s paper, claiming he had discovered the bacteria first. After years of vitriol and dispute, the scientific consensus found Yersin correct and the Japanese report flawed. Ironically, Kitasato’s state-of-the-art equipment in the British hospital over-heated the samples, leading to a secondary infection. Lacking sophisticated equipment and working at room temperature in his hut, Yersin was spared this error. He named the bacteria Pasteurella pestis as an homage to Pasteur, but in 1967 it was reclassified under a new genus and renamed Yersinia pestis.

Yersin then spent two months in his Hong Kong laboratory trying to understand how the plague spread. He took soil samples but the results were muddied. He also inaccurately speculated that flies were vectors. He then focused on the large number of dead rats; Deville writes as if this was a new finding, but Chinese and Arab scholars had noted this phenomenon for centuries. Despite his best efforts Yersin failed to identify how the rodents spread the plague, but he was certain they played a role.

Yersin returned to Nha Trang to work on a vaccine for plague and study cholera, tetanus, smallpox, and cattle diseases. With a government grant of some 5,000 piastres he built a veterinary laboratory, imported scientific equipment, and purchased a menagerie of animals. He hired a number of young Vietnamese boys as assistants and a French veterinarian named Pesas, and tested the serum on increasingly large animals. Unfortunately, the former army veterinarian would die from an accident in the lab. In November 1894 Yersin was back in Paris to receive the Légion d’honneur from Minister of Colonies Théophile Delcassé for his triumphal success in Hong Kong.[5] Working with Amédée Borrel and Albert Calmette at the Institut, he again tested the vaccine on animals and co-authored an important paper.[6] Sent to Madagascar with the serum, Yersin toured East Africa, doing more sightseeing than plague fighting. Then it was back to China. In Canton he secretly and successfully treated a young Chinese seminarian with the Pasteurian serum, violating instructions from French diplomatic mission and hiding his work from the Chinese authorities. If Yersin was the first doctor to save a patient from plague, he tested an unproven treatment on unwitting Chinese patients.[7] In 1898 it was off to plague-stricken Bombay where he again butted heads with the British. Deville does not report that in India the serum proved less than successful as half of his patients died.[8] After repeated frustrations, he retreated to Nha Trang, leaving his successor Paul Simond to identify rat fleas as the vector that spread plague.

In 1902 Governor General of Indochina Paul Doumer summoned Yersin to Hanoi to establish the empire’s only medical school. Returning to Nha Trang in 1904, he increased his property holdings on the coast and in the mountains. He experimented with new crops, acclimatizing European fruits and vegetables but also rubber trees, Peruvian cinchona, coffee, and coca plants. He used the latter to make a cocaine elixir which he enjoyed as his one vice. Rubber and quinine (derived from cinchona to treat malaria) were especially profitable. Suddenly a very wealthy man, he purchased scientific equipment from Europe and imported several automobiles, including the first to be seen on the streets of Hanoi. He dabbled in civil engineering, built roads to his plantations, and contemplated building an airport. He visited Paris regularly in the interwar years, collaborating with the Institut Pasteur, staying at the hôtel Lutétia, which, in yet another coincidence, the Germans occupied after Yersin left. In Nha Trang, the elderly Yersin busied himself with meteorological observations, studying Latin in the evenings. His mind remained energetic and restless until his quiet death in his beloved Nha Trang in 1943.

     

Today Alexandre Yersin is remembered fondly in Vietnam, arguably better known there than in France or Switzerland. Schools, streets, and hospitals bear his name. Affectionately remembered as Ông Năm (“Mr. Five”), he even appears on a commemorative stamp and was posthumously granted Vietnamese citizenship in 2014.[9] Yersin’s fascinating life makes the book a real page turner and Deville’s colorful prose is engaging. But the author’s artistic achievements can distract from his failure to address problematic aspects of Yersin’s life and the ethics of the colonial encounter.

Deville clearly holds his subject in the highest esteem. In almost 300 pages there is nary a critical word. Yersin comes off as a hero and little attention is paid to his social awkwardness.[10] Yersin’s inability to read social cues or to work well with others might account for his sense of alienation in Germany, his decision to leave the Institut Pasteur, and his conflicts with his British and Japanese colleagues in Hong Kong. To be fair, the British treated him deplorably. In an August 20, 1894 letter, Lowson writes Kitasato: “If you can …kill a man called Yersin, for God’s sake do so.”[11]

Another explanation for Yersin’s social alienation could be his sexuality, or at least what of it we can reconstruct. Deville refers to Yersin as a confirmed bachelor and that his devotion to science accounts for the failure of a very brief relationship with a woman. Among those willing to raise the subject, the consensus is that Yersin was homosexual.[12] I utilize this insight into this historical subject as the workings of power, because Yersin’s private life may hold the key to unlock certain mysteries.[13] If Yersin was a closeted gay man, this could explain some of his decisions. Perhaps Paris and life aboard ships were safe spaces to explore his sexuality?[14] Perhaps his self-imposed exile in Nha Trang was a retreat from the judgmental eyes of Europeans in Saigon and Hanoi? Perhaps he was the victim of homophobia from unfriendly German students, Kitasato, and Lowson? Deville has stated that there is no evidence of homosexuality in his letters to his mother and sisters but admitted that Yersin would not have discussed sex with them.[15] In a similar vein, a Swiss filmmaker said:

Alexandre Yersin has many such taboos: his possible homosexuality, for example, or his role during French colonialism in Indochina. It is important to me to say nothing that I cannot prove. […] In Indochina during his time an open dealing with same-sex love would have been unthinkable. He most probably might have been killed.[16]

Even considering the moral laxity of the white colonial community, it is unlikely that Yersin would have been openly gay.[17]

Discussions of Yersin’s sexuality must be placed in the context of the French empire’s unequal relationships. The colonies – where white men of even modest means held tremendous power over colonized peoples – offered diverse sexual opportunities, including the potential to exploit women, men, and children trying to survive the chaotic disruptions of foreign invasion and occupation.[18] Colonial Saigon had a reputation for commercial sex and was well-known for its male sex workers.[19] In Nha Trang, a small fishing village with no European residents, Yersin hired a series of young male assistants, who traveled with him and shared hotel rooms. One traveling companion disappeared with a significant sum of his money in Hong Kong. In Hanoi in 1902, Yersin raised eyebrows when he introduced a fisherman’s son as his “mechanic.” Evidence points to Yersin using his colonial privilege to form close contacts with a series of Vietnamese youth. Whether these relationships were sexual or platonic cannot be verified, but Deville glosses over this aspect of Yersin’s life.

Deville further fails to address colonial power dynamics when discussing Yersin’s medical ethics and personal wealth. Yes, the Pasteurians achieved great things but they were known for taking risks. In 1885 Pasteur famously saved the life of nine-year-old Joseph Meister with an untested rabies vaccine, even though he lacked a medical license and his closest collaborator refused to participate in the trial on moral grounds.[20] Yersin violated ethical standards when he illegally tested his serum in Canton.[21] Deville celebrates the success of the serum, ignoring the ethical problems of European doctors field-testing vaccines on colonial subjects.[22] In the colonial order, white doctors could experiment on non-white bodies, leading Franz Fanon to observe “[w]ith medicine we come to one of the most tragic features of the colonial situation.”[23] There is no discussion of Yersin’s responsibility for a deadly 1898 plague outbreak in Nha Trang, an event he personally reported to Doumer.[24]

Deville notes that Yersin had become a very wealthy man by the early 20th century. The novel matter-of-factly mentions that Yersin owned ever-expanding properties and amassed a fortune from his exports. As the French rubber plantations were infamous sites of brutal exploitation of impoverished workers, it is startling that Deville does not place Yersin, the plantation-owner, within the context of French colonialism.[25] The book also fails to mention the ways in which French settlers, such as Yersin, dispossessed the Vietnamese of control of their own land.[26]

While Plague and Cholera is a lively book about a fascinating historical figure who made important contributions to the struggle against pandemic diseases, Deville’s portrait of Yersin is inflected by his romantic colonial nostalgia. If taught critically it could be successful in the classroom. However, the book must be treated with caution due to its glaring omissions and its less-than-scholarly historical methodology. That said, it is a provocative work sure to inspire lively debates on medical ethics in the French colonial empire.

Patrick Deville, Peste et choléra, Paris: Seuil, 2012; Plague and Cholera, Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 2014.

NOTES

  1. Jane’a Johnson, “Confederate Monuments Getting Removed By Protesters Is a Statement of People Power”, Teen Vogue (June 26, 2020) https://www.teenvogue.com/story/racist-confederate-monuments-taken-down.
  2. Henri H. Mollaret and Jacqueline Brossolet, Alexandre Yersin, le vainqueur de la peste (Fayard: Paris, 1985) and Élisabeth Du Closel, Docteur Nam: La fabuleuse histoire de l’homme qui soigna la peste (Albin Michel: Paris, 1996).
  3. Deville ignores Yersin’s older brother Franck.
  4. Alexandre Yersin, Voyages chez les Moïs d’Indochine (Olizane: Paris, 2016).
  5. Association Amicale Santé Navale et d’Outre Mer, “The Plague” http://www.asnom.org/oh/en/0523_peste.php .
  6. “Dr. Yersin, the Discoverer of the Anti-Plague Serum,” Journal of the American Medical Association (1897) XXVIII(8): 372-373.
  7. Sonia Shah, The Body Hunters: Testing New Drugs on the World’s Poorest Patients (New York: The New Press, 2006).
  8. John Firth, “The History of Plague – Part 2. The discoveries of the plague Bacillus and its Vector”, Journal of Military and Veterans’ Health April 2012: 20(2):11-16.
  9. “71 Years After His Death, Alexandre Yersin Gets Vietnamese Citizenship,” Saigoneer (24 September 2014) https://saigoneer.com/vietnam-news/2767-71-years-after-his-death-alexandre-yersin-gets-vietnamese-citizenship.
  10. Wendy Orent, Plague: The Mysterious Past and the Terrifying Future of the World’s Most Dangerous Disease (Free Press: New York, 2004): 180.
  11. Edward Marriott, Plague: A Story of Science, Rivalry, and the Scourge That Won’t Go Away (Metropolitan Books: New York, 2002): 148.
  12. Didier Denché and Vincent Vivré, Manifeste pour un authentique dico-bio-homo (Paris: Quintes-Feuilles, 2004): 22 and Rue des Garçons (https://www.yumpu.com/user/ruedesgarcons.fpc.li ), an openly pedophile blog, reprinted Louis Geschenk, “Un savant estimable peut-il être pédophile? Le cas Alexandre Yersin,” Élu number 2: 106-114.
  13. Michael G. Vann, “(Colonial) Intimacy Issues: Using French Hanoi to Teach the Histories of Sex, Racial Hierarchies, and Geographies of Desire in the New Imperialism,” World History Connected, October 2018 https://worldhistoryconnected.press.uillinois.edu/15.3/forum_vann.html.
  14. Paul Barker and Jo Stanley, Hello Sailor! The Hidden History of Gay Life at Sea (New York: Routledge, 2003).
  15. Miriam Molero, “Mi no-entrevista con Patrick Deville: ‘Permítame una pregunta: ¿Yersin era homosexual?’” #LíneaMaginot (blog) 4 October, 2014 https://blogs.infobae.com/linea-maginot/2014/10/04/mi-no-entrevista-con-patrick-deville-permitame-una-pregunta-yersin-era-homosexual/index.html.
  16. Lukas Mier, “The Fate of Stories: Stéphane Kleeb interview,” VitaScope 2018 https://www.vitascope.ch/joomla/images/pdf-en/Interview_Lukas-Meier_en.pdf.
  17. Robert Aldrich, Colonialism and Homosexuality (New York: Routledge, 2002).
  18. Michael G. Vann, “Sex and the Colonial City: Mapping Masculinity, Whiteness, and Desire in French Occupied Hanoi,” Journal of World History, Volume 28, Numbers 3 & 4, December 2017, pp. 395–435.
  19. Frank Proschan, “‘Syphilis, Opiomania, and Pederasty’: Colonial Constructions of Vietnamese (And French) Social Diseases.” Journal of the History of Sexuality 11, no. 4 (2002): 610-36.
  20. Gerald L Geison, The Private Science of Louis Pasteur (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995).
  21. Centre des Archives Section d’Outre-Mer (CAOM), GGI 6684: “Peste bubonique épidémie sévissant à Canton 1897”.
  22. Michael G. Vann, “Hanoi in the Time of Cholera: Epidemic Disease and Racial Power in the Colonial City” in Laurence Monnais and Harold J. Cook (eds.), Global Movements, Local Concerns: Medicine and Health in Southeast Asia (Singapore: National University Singapore Press, 2012).
  23. Frantz Fanon, A Dying Colonialism (New York: Grove Press, 1965): 121.
  24. CAOM, GGI 6676: “Epidémie de Peste à Nha Trang (Annam) 1898”.
  25. Michitake Aso, Rubber and the Making of Vietnam: An Ecological History, 1897–1975 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2018).
  26. Martin J. Murray, The Development of Capitalism in Colonial Indochina (1870-1940) (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1980).
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