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Alexandre Yersin

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Alexandre Yersin
Alexandre Yersin
Born(1863-09-22)22 September 1863
Died1 March 1943(1943-03-01) (aged 79)
NationalitySwiss and French
Known forYersinia pestis
AwardsLeconte Prize (1927)
Scientific career
InstitutionsÉcole Normale Supérieure, Institut Pasteur

Alexandre Emile Jean Yersin (22 September 1863 – 1 March 1943) was a Swiss-French physician and bacteriologist. He is remembered as the co-discoverer of the bacillus responsible for the bubonic plague or pest, which was later named in his honour: Yersinia pestis. Another bacteriologist, the Japanese physician Kitasato Shibasaburō, is often credited with independently identifying the bacterium a few days earlier. Yersin also demonstrated for the first time that the same bacillus was present in the rodent as well as in the human disease, thus underlining the possible means of transmission.

Early life and education[edit]

Yersin was born in 1863 in Aubonne, in the canton of Vaud, Switzerland, as the posthumous son of Jean-Alexandre-Marc Yersin from his wife Fanny-Isaline-Emilie Moschell.[1] From 1883 to 1884 he studied medicine at Lausanne, followed by Marburg, and Paris (1884–1886).


In 1886, Yersin entered Louis Pasteur's research laboratory at the École Normale Supérieure, by invitation of Emile Roux, and participated in the development of the anti-rabies serum. In 1888 he received his doctorate with a dissertation titled Étude sur le Développement du Tubercule Expérimental [Study on the Development of Experimental Tubercule] and spent two months with Robert Koch in Germany.

He joined the recently created Pasteur Institute in 1889 as Roux's collaborator and discovered with him the diphtheric toxin, produced by the Corynebacterium diphtheriae bacillus.

In order to practice medicine in France, Yersin applied for and obtained French nationality in 1888. Soon afterwards (1890), he left for French Indochina (current Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) in Southeast Asia as a physician for the Messageries Maritimes company, on the Saigon-Manila line and then on the Saigon-Haiphong line. He participated in one of the Auguste Pavie missions. In 1894 Yersin was sent by request of the French government and the Pasteur Institute to Hong Kong, to investigate the plague happening there.

There, in a small hut since he was denied access to British hospitals at his arrival,[2] he made his greatest discovery: that of the pathogen which causes the disease. Dr Kitasato Shibasaburō, also in Hong Kong, had identified a bacterium several days earlier. There is controversy whether this was the same pneumococci or a mix of the two. Because Kitasato's initial reports were vague and somewhat contradictory, some give Yersin sole credit for the discovery.[3][4] However, a 1976 thorough analysis of the morphology of the organism discovered by Kitasato determined that "we are confident that Kitasato had examined the plague bacillus in Hong Kong in late June and early July 1894", only days after Yersin announced his own discovery on 20 June, and that Kitasato "should not be denied this credit".[5] The plague bacillus develops better at lower temperatures, so Yersin's less well-equipped lab turned out to be an advantage in the race with Kitasato, who used an incubator. Therefore, although at first named “Kitasato-Yersin bacillus” by the scientific community, the microbe will later assume only the latter's name because of the one identified by Kitasato, a type of streptococcus, cannot be found in the lymphatic glands. Yersin was also able to demonstrate for the first time that the same bacillus was present in the rodent as well as in the human disease, thus underlining the possible means of transmission. This important discovery was communicated to the French Academy of Sciences in the same year, by his colleague Emile Duclaux, in a classic paper titled "La peste bubonique à Hong-Kong".[6]

From 1895 to 1897, Yersin further pursued his studies on the bubonic plague. In 1895 he returned to the Institute Pasteur in Paris and with Émile Roux, Albert Calmette and Amédée Borrel, prepared the first anti-plague serum. In the same year, he returned to Indochina, where he installed a small laboratory at Nha Trang to manufacture the serum (in 1905 this laboratory became a branch of the Pasteur Institute). Yersin tried the serum received from Paris in Canton and Amoy, in 1896, and in Bombay, India, in 1897, with disappointing results. Having decided to stay in his country of adoption, he participated actively in the creation of the Medical School of Hanoi in 1902, and was its first director, until 1904.

Yersin tried his hand at agriculture and was a pioneer in the cultivation of rubber trees (Hevea brasiliensis) imported from Brazil into Indochina. For this purpose, he obtained in 1897 a concession from the government to establish an agricultural station at Suoi Dau. He opened a new station at Hon Ba in 1915, where he tried to acclimatize the quinine tree (Cinchona ledgeriana), which was imported from the Andes in South America by the Spaniards, and which produced the first known effective remedy for preventing and treating malaria, a disease which prevails in Southeast Asia to this day.

Alexandre Yersin is well remembered in Vietnam, where he was affectionately called Ông Năm (Mr Nam/Fifth) by the people.

On 8 January 1902, Yersin was accredited to be the first Headmaster of Hanoi Medical University by the Governor-General of French Indochina, future president of France Paul Doumer.[7]

In 1934 he was nominated honorary director of Pasteur Institute and a member of its Board of Administration.

Death and legacy in Vietnam[edit]

He died at his home in Nha Trang, in 1943.

Following the country's independence, streets named in his honor kept their designation and his tomb in Suoi Dau was graced by a pagoda where rites are performed in his worship. Yersin Market in Ho Chi Minh City was named after him.[8] His house in Nha Trang is now the Yersin Museum, and the epitaph on his tombstone describes him as a "Benefactor and humanist, venerated by the Vietnamese people".

In Hanoi, the Lycée français Alexandre Yersin, a French international school was named after him.

A private university founded in 2004 in Da Lat was named "Yersin University" in his honour [Trường Đại Học Yersin Đà Lạt].[9]


Dr Yersin was credited with founding the site for the new town of Da Lat in 1893. Because of the high altitude and European-like climate, Da Lat became an R&R spot for French officers. There was a high school named after him which was built in the 1920s, the Lycée Yersin, aka Grand Lycée (grade 6 to 12), the Petit Lycée (elementary to grade 5), and a university named after him which was built in the 2000s.

While in Hong Kong, Yersin was helped in his research by an Italian priest of the PIME order named Bernardo Vigano. He provided cadavers and assisted with his quest to find a remedy for the plague.


  1. ^ Alexandre Yersin in German, French and Italian in the online Historical Dictionary of Switzerland.
  2. ^ Orent, Wendy (2012). Plague: The Mysterious Past and Terrifying Future of the World's Most Dangerous Disease. Simon & Schuster. p. 181. ISBN 9780743236850.
  3. ^ Howard-Jones, Norman (1973). "Was Shibasaburo Kitasato the Co-Discoverer of the Plague Bacillus?". Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. 16 (Winter): 292–307. doi:10.1353/pbm.1973.0034. PMID 4570035. S2CID 31767623.
  4. ^ Solomon, Tom (5 July 1997). "Hong Kong, 1894: the role of James A Lowson in the controversial discovery of the plague bacillus". Lancet. 350 (9070): 59–62. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(97)01438-4. PMID 9217728. S2CID 26567729.
  5. ^ Bibel, DJ; Chen, TH (September 1976). "Diagnosis of plaque: an analysis of the Yersin-Kitasato controversy". Bacteriological Reviews. 40 (3): 633–651, quote p. 646. doi:10.1128/br.40.3.633-651.1976. PMC 413974. PMID 10879.
  6. ^ Yersin, Alexandre (1894). "La peste bubonique à Hong-Kong" [The Bubonic Plague in Hong Kong]. Annales de l'Institut Pasteur (in French). 8: 662–667.
  7. ^ "Phần 1: Thời kỳ thuộc Pháp (1902–1945)" [Part 1: French colonial period (1902–1945)]. Hanoi Medical University (in Vietnamese). 2001. Retrieved 15 December 2015.
  8. ^ Filek-Gibson, Dana (2018). Vietnam (Second ed.). Berkeley, CA. ISBN 978-1-64049-263-9. OCLC 1028233045.{{cite book}}: CS1 maint: location missing publisher (link)
  9. ^ "Yersin University, Description". Da Lat, Vietnam. 2020. Retrieved 31 August 2021.



  • Barrett, O. (May 1989). "Alexandre Yersin and recollections of Vietnam". Hosp. Pract. (Off. Ed.). 24 (5A): 13. PMID 2498345.
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  • Haubrich, William S. (January 2005). "Yersin of Yersinia infection". Gastroenterology. 128 (1): 23. doi:10.1053/j.gastro.2004.11.040. PMID 15633119.
  • Holubar, K. (1999). "Alexandre Yersin (1863-1943) and the centenary of the plague in Nha Trang: A threat transformed". Dermatology. 198 (1): 108–9. doi:10.1159/000018052. PMID 10026422. S2CID 39702321.
  • Howard-Jones, N. (April 1975). "Kitasato, Yersin, and the plague bacillus". Clio Medica (Amsterdam, Netherlands). 10 (1): 23–7. PMID 54239.
  • Moseley, J. E. (1981). "Travels of Alexandre Yersin: letters of a pastorian in Indochina, 1890–1894". Perspect. Biol. Med. 24 (4): 607–18. doi:10.1353/pbm.1981.0043. PMID 7027173. S2CID 27192713.
  • Rosenberg, J. C. (February 1968). "Doctors afield: Alexandre Yersin". N. Engl. J. Med. 278 (5): 261–3. doi:10.1056/NEJM196802012780507. PMID 4865333.
  • Solomon, T. (June 1995). "Alexandre Yersin and the plague bacillus". The Journal of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 98 (3): 209–12. PMID 7783282.


  • Bernard, L. (May 1994). "[Memories of Monsieur Yersin]". Revue médicale de la Suisse romande. 114 (5): 439–44. PMID 8016523.
  • Bonard, E. C. (May 1994). "[The plague and Alexander Yersin (1863–1943)]". Revue médicale de la Suisse romande. 114 (5): 389–91. PMID 8016516.
  • Bonard, E. C. (December 1972). "[Two letters from Alexandre Yersin]". Revue médicale de la Suisse romande. 92 (12): 995–1000. PMID 4578823.
  • Bonifas, V. (May 1984). "[Alexandre Yersin (1863–1943)]". Revue médicale de la Suisse romande. 104 (5): 349–51. PMID 6379813.
  • Brossollet, J. (May 1994). "[Correspondence of Alexander Yersin to his family]". Revue médicale de la Suisse romande. 114 (5): 445–50. PMID 8016524.
  • Delaveau, P.; Clair G. (1995). "[Production of cinchona in the French empire: A. Yersin and E. Perrot]". Revue d'histoire de la pharmacie. 42 (304): 75–84. doi:10.3406/pharm.1995.4211. PMID 11640400.
  • Patrick Deville, Peste et choléra, éditions du Seuil, collection « Fiction & Cie », 2012 (ISBN 978-2-02-107720-9).
  • Dreifuss, J.-J. (May 1994). "[Discoveries and deceptions: Yersin from Hong Kong to Stockholm]". Revue médicale de la Suisse romande. 114 (5): 425–8. PMID 8016521.
  • Fantini, B. (May 1994). "[A young Pasteur scientist with Koch: Yersin, 1888]". Revue médicale de la Suisse romande. 114 (5): 429–37. PMID 8016522.
  • Kupferschmidt, H. (May 1994). "[Development of research on plague following the discovery of the bacillus by Alexander Yersin]". Revue médicale de la Suisse romande. 114 (5): 415–23. PMID 8016520.
  • Mafart, Y. (1965). "[Alexandre Yersin (1863–1943)]". Médecine Tropicale: Revue du Corps de Santé Colonial. 25 (4): 427–38. PMID 5320482.
  • Pilet, P. E. (May 1994). "[Yersin Senior and son. From biology to medicine]". Revue médicale de la Suisse romande. 114 (5): 405–14. PMID 8016519.

Other languages[edit]

  • Bockemühl, J. (April 1994). "[100 years after the discovery of the plague-causing agent—importance and veneration of Alexandre Yersin in Vietnam today]". Immun. Infekt. 22 (2): 72–5. PMID 7959865.
  • Raggenbass, R. (1995). "[Blackwater fever: a French episode drawn from the research of Alexandre Yersin]". Gesnerus. 52 (3–4): 264–89. PMID 8851059.

External links[edit]