The Remarkable Doctor Yersin
Nowadays, few people would know the significance of the Latin classification of ‘Yersinia pestis’. In the distant past, this tiny bacillus was the scourge of humanity for centuries. It had many names for its various manifestations, notably the Bubonic Plague and the Black Death, but its effect was always the same – a rapid and agonizing death spreading through the population like wildfire.
In 1894, all that changed when a then unknown young protégé of Louis Pasteur became the first person to isolate and identify the plague bacterium that bears his name, thus opening the way towards a vaccine.Dr. Alexandre Yersin, a French speaking Swiss national, has been largely forgotten, except in Vietnam, where he spent most of his adult life. Born in 1863, he became a brilliant doctor, so much so that he was accepted to study under Pasteur. Finding Pasteur’s egotistical approach an impediment to his research, he distanced himself physically by travelling to South East Asia and settling in Vietnam in 1891. Three years later, in Hong Kong, he made the discovery that would make him famous.His contribution to Vietnam is remarkable. It was he who first recognised Dalat’s potential as a healthy resort, and established a Pasteur Institute there. He also founded similar Institutes in Nha Trang and Hanoi. The latter, now known as the National Institute of Hygiene and Epidemiology, is the premier research institute in Vietnam, employing over 350 scientists dedicated to the control of infectious disease, preventive health care and the study of microbiology and immunology. It was there that much of the research into the 2003 SARS epidemic enabled Vietnam to be the first country to overcome the new disease.Apart from his medical work, he also introduced into Vietnam the hevea brasiliensis, better known as the rubber tree, and the quinine-bearing cinchona plant used in the treatment of malaria.After more than fifty years in Vietnam, living in Nha Trang, Dr. Yersin died at the age of eighty. He is buried in a small fishing village near his home.
He is one of very few foreigners that have gained national respect in Vietnam, and by far the most prominent. He is often referred to as Vietnam’s Fifth Uncle, Ho Chi Minh being the first – there could hardly be a greater honour. His was almost the only foreign name that remained when street signs and the titles of public buildings were replaced by their Vietnamese equivalent after reunification.
In accordance with the beliefs of his adopted country, people have built a chapel to honour his guardian spirit and burn candles and incense sticks in his memory.