Vietnam 100 years ago: Dr. Yersin and Pasteur Institute of Nha Trang

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The name of Pasteur is connected in the minds of many people solely with the terrible disease of hydrophobia, and Pasteur Institutes with its treatment.

It is true that the discovery of a cure for rabies was one of Pasteur’s greatest triumphs, and by it he has saved thousands of people from a most horrible death. Yet neither this, nor the arrest of the silkworm disease, nor the cure of anthrax by vaccination, are his only credentials to fame.

He was above all the pioneer of research work, and the marvellous results
now obtained from the study of microbes are due almost entirely to him. The investigations which he began alone are now being carried on by all nations in all countries. Lister, Bruce,- Laveran, and Ross, whose names will always be connected respectively with the antiseptic treatment of wounds, sleeping sick-ness, malaria these men and numbers of others acknowledge that their discoveries were stimulated by Pasteur’s example.

To these famous names should be added that of Dr. Yersin, now director of the Pasteur Institute of Nhatrang, who was one of Pasteur’s first pupils.

After studying under the great master for some years at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, he left for the East. While in Tonking the terrible plague epidemic of 1894 broke out in Hongkong and Canton. He obtained permission from the French Government to go there and arrived when the plague had already claimed thousands of victims among the Chinese.

Dr. Yersin was allowed to establish a small laboratory in a hut within the precincts of the hospital, and in the very midst of plague infection he set to work. The first thing that struck him when visiting the wretched overcrowded huts of the natives was the number of dead rats.

He was told that this rat mortality was a well-known forerunner of plague. Yersin at once examined their blood under the microscope and found that their disease was the same as that of the natives. In the bubonic tumours the great characteristic of plague he discovered immense numbers of an unknown bacillus. This he succeeded in cultivating. Healthy rats and mice were inoculated with this culture ; they rapidly showed typical plague symptoms and died. The bacillus of plague was discovered.

Yersin had no sooner obtained this result than he began to search for the probable medium of infection between rat and man. Ultimately he found that the infection was carried by fleas, of which there was an abundance owing to the hot climate and the filthy dwellings of the natives.

Now famous, he asked for funds to establish an Institute in French Indo-China, where he might not only prepare the anti-plague serum, but continue his other bacteriological work. He was convinced that there was a vast field open to research in the Tropics, and that the study of microbes would lead to greater results here than in Europe. His request granted, he began to look out for a favourable site.

Annam is a narrow band of territory forming the eastern boundary of Indo-China. It is almost entirely made up of the eastern slope of the “Annamitic Chain” which runs right through the colony from north to south.

Yersin had been one of the first explorers of the interior, and though he had discovered the Langbian Plateau, which was favourable in many respects, he deemed it too much cut off from civilisation till roads were made. He was obliged, therefore, to confine himself to the plain. He might have joined forces with Dr. Calmette, who had established a laboratory at Saigon, but he realised that horses and cattle, of which he would need a great quantity, would be dearer to buy and to keep in a town.

This scientist therefore determined to settle in one of the little villages along the coast, opposite one of the beautiful sheltered bays of which Annam can justly boast. Nhatrang answered his requirements. It was a small village, healthy for Europeans, with plenty of cattle and horses, pasturage easily obtainable a short distance inland, and with the mail-boats north and south calling once a fortnight. /…/

Suoigiau (or, as it is called on maps, “Concession Yersin”) is a large grant of land given to Dr. Yersin by the colony on condition that it should be cultivated.

Yersin first grew tobacco, then coffee, later coca for cocaine, and, although the results of each of these plantations were very successful, all have now been given up for the cultivation of rubber-trees (Hevea bresilensis). They have already begun to yield, and the plantation produces more than a ton of rubber a year, and provides an income for the Institute.

Read more:
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Vietnam 100 years ago: emperor and aristocracy

Text: Gabrielle Vassal
On and off duty in Annam, London 1910
Photo: Business&Leisure archive

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