Sunday, September 23, 2012

Alexandre Yersin

Alexander Yersin was born on September 22, 1863 in the village of Lavaux, on the shores of lake Geneva in Switzerland. He was the youngest of four children of a Swiss father and a French mother. His father, who as a high school teacher, died three weeks before he was born. He began his medical education in Lausanne, Switzerland, continued in Marburg, Germany and finished his PhD in medicine in Paris France, writing his thesis on tuberculosis in 1888.  In 1886 he became a French citizen. Also in 1886 he began working in the laboratories of Luis Pasteur at what would be the Pasteur Institute. With Pierre Roux he isolated the toxin from diphtheria and he participated in the development of rabies anti-serum.

Yersin quickly tired of working for Pasteur, who was notorious for taking credit for the work of those beneath him, so he signed on as a ship's doctor with Messangeries Maritimes, a shipping company. His duties were light and his first voyage took him to Saigon, Vietnam. Yersin spent many years in Vietnam, some on expeditions into unexplored parts and is a honored hero for the free medical consultations he gave. Streets bearing his name remained named after him following the communist revolution.

In 1894 he was sent by the Pasteur Institute and the French government to Hong Kong to investigate an outbreak of plague. When he arrived he found that Shibasaburo Kitasato, who had recently discovered the role of Clostridium tetani in lockjaw, was already working on isolating the bacterial cause of the plague. Yersin saw that Kitasato was culturing bacteria from the blood and organs of patients, but not the characteristic bubos of bubonic plague. Yersin was able to bribe two British sailors and gain access to the morgue. Using a sterile pipette he punctured the infected lymph node of a recently dead patient. He found faintly gram negative staining bacilli (rod-shaped bacteria) in the material he withdrew from the lymph node. He injected mice with the lymph node material and they quickly died. Autopsies showed the same slightly gram negatively staining bacilli.

Kitasato was quick to publish his results and claim credit for the discovery of the bacteria responsible for plague. Kitasato's cultures turned out not to be pure for the causative organism and Yersin was allowed to name the new bacteria. Pasturella pestis was his choice, honoring Pasteur, but since 1944 it has been Yersinia pestis. Yersina and Kitasato are considered co-discoverers of the organism.

In addition to his medical work, Yersin also tried his hand at agriculture, importing the Brazilian rubber tree and the quinine tree from the Andes to Vietnam. He was the director of the medical school at Ha Noi, Vietnam in its first two years (1902-1904).

He died on March 1, 1943.


Burns, William; "Alexandre Yersin and His Adventures in Vietnam"; Mill Hill Essays 2003; National Institute for Medical Research; 2003

Maki, Rebecca; "The Discovery of Yersinia pestis"; at

Alexandre Yersin Wikipedia Entry

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