Wednesday, 21 May 2014

The Hot and the Dead – Alexandre Yersin

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Alexandre Yersin had trouble hooking up.

It wasn’t his appearance. Look at those eyes and kissy lips! Look at that gallant brow and the beard that says, “This is as well-groomed as my inequitable portion of testosterone will allow”. Definitely worth the effort of looking at.

It wasn’t his upbringing. Born in Switzerland in 1863 to a recently-widowed French schoolmistress, his mother brought up Alex and his two brothers capably while running a finishing school.

It wasn’t his job. At age 20 he began studying medicine, and by 1886 he’d studied in three different countries and had scored a job at Louis Pasteur’s lab in Paris. His medical career saw him travel the world as a microbiologist in Europe, a ship’s doctor on the South China Sea and a medical researcher in Hong Kong, before settling in Vietnam permanently. Not really all that shabby.

It may have been his approach. “Hi!”, he would say eagerly to a prospective poking-partner in a suitably tailored outfit in a suitably appointed salon, “I’m Alex, and I noticed you from over there. I’m kind of a big deal in sciencey circles. In fact, just today I was in the lab with several of the world’s most deadly pathogens. May I kiss you?”

Yersin, you see, specialised in bacteriology. His day-to-day duties involved dipping his various tools into jars of diphtheria, rabies, and everyone’s favourite life-interrupting bacterium, the bubonic plague.

In 1894, dapper young Alex was credited with the discovery (and therefore got dibs on the naming rights) of Yersinia pestis, the germ responsible for the plague. Only days before, Japanese bacteriologist Dr Kitasato Shibasabur; had also identified the bacterium, but did not document the discovery adequately to claim the credit. In those days, such scientific controversies were settled calmly and respectfully – not with the pay-per-view oiled wrestling matches we see today. Whatever the case, a hundred million dead people from the 14th century were a bit pissed off that it hadn’t been discovered 600 years earlier.

For the next few years after his discovery, Yersin set about manufacturing and testing a serum to treat the plague, with disappointing results. Not one to sit idle, Alex immediately set himself up in his back room and spent hours each day doing Sudoko and eating Jaffa Cakes. Or at least he would have, if he was a freelance writer in the 21st century. Lucky for us though, he wasn’t. Instead, he helped to establish and run the Medical School of Ha Noi between 1902 and 1904; he pioneered the cultivation of rubber trees imported from Brazil and quinine trees from South America; and generally set about being a hero of his adopted country. Sigh.

But all good things must come to an end, and in 1943, at age 80, so did Alex Yersin. He passed away at his home in Nha Trang, leaving behind a great contribution to science, several educational institutions bearing his name, and a small collection of terrible pick-up lines.

Personally, I would have risked a few gangrenous limbs for the chance of a snog.

Shelley Stocken

Shelley Stocken is a freelance writer when she’s not feeding, clothing and wiping family members.

Follow her on twitter @shellity

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