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Alexandre Yersin was born in Switzerland and became naturalised French in 1888. After studying medicine, he went to work in the laboratory in the Rue d'Ulm, the future Pasteur Institute. He participated in Emile Roux’s work on diphtheria and the publishing of papers on the diphtheria bacillus and its toxin. In 1890 he left for Indochina as a doctor for the Compagnie des Messageries Maritimes. Yersin wanted to explore the Moi country, the region of high plateaux in the interior of the centre and south of what was then known to the French as Annam, a region in what is now Vietnam. He left the coast of Annam for Bien-Hoa and the Lang Bian plateau. From March to June 1892 he travelled nearly 500km. Yersin was fascinated by this life of exploration, joined the Troupes de la Marine and became a doctor in the colonies. On the advice of Captain Cupet, he travelled the region between the coast and the Mekong River. On his return he received a new assignment from the Ministry of Education in order to make a more in-depth exploration of his previous journey in the south of Annam around the Donnai River. In December 1893, he met Pavie in Saigon when the various missions for the demarcation of frontiers were being organised with England and China. However, Yersin wanted to remain independent and refused to follow Pavie.

Yersin went to mix with the Moi Bih and Penong people. He delivered several descriptions of clothing and customs, and took photos. Like many of his contemporaries, he was happy just to give descriptions and remained persuaded of the superiority of Europeans. "They understand we are superior and want us amongst them. What is more, this is an essentially savage people without the ability to write, and therefore without traditions. They do not even understand the division of time."

At the request of the Pasteur Institute and the French government he went to Hong Kong in 1894 where a serious epidemic of the plague had broken out. There he discovered the bacillus responsible for the illness. On returning to France in 1895, he developed an anti-plague serum in collaboration with Emile Roux, André Borrel and Albert Calmette. Yersin returned to Indochina and settled in Nha-Trang, founding a laboratory for the study of human diseases and local epizootic diseases. He also took an interest in tropical agronomy and managed to acclimatise the rubber tree and the chinchona tree. He died in Nha-Trang in 1943.