Book review: Of microbes and men: Peste et Choléra (Plague and Cholera) By Patrick Deville

9782021077209

This is a book my father gave me as a graduation gift for finishing my medical studies. If I knew him less, and he me, I might have taken offence in being given a book called “plague and cholera”, as a light-readable treat after 6 years of medical studies, but as it is I was right to suspect it would be a great read.

This is a novelization of a biography, or I suppose you could call it so, of Alexandre Yersin, a Swiss microbiologist, but also an explorer, a doctor, a part time cartographer and sometimes cultivator, a humanist of the turn of the 20th century, who is famous for discovering, and giving his name, to the bacteria that causes the plague, Yersinius Pestis.

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Another “institut pasteur”, this one in the Hill Stationcof Dalat

I had visited, while in Nha Trang, Vietnam, the “Institut Pasteur” he created there, and where he worked for decades, in between difficult trips far inside the mainland to discover minorities living in the hills and jungles, and I remember being moved by the remnants of his life, his letters to his mother, his interest and the meticulous way he wrote about everything, because everything was worthy of his scientific curiosity, and all of the small testimonies through which you could see the genius ways his mind worked. There was a curator, tending this institute turned into a small museum, a lady of a certain age, who spoke perfect french – as it is often the case for the generation of people in south Vietnam who were still educated in the French system, and whose delight to meet people studying to be doctors and coming from about 15 minutes to the place Yersin was born was touching. We talked for a while, about what his life must have been, his links with the small community in Nha Thrang, and what on earth is that force that moves a man to travel to such incredible distances – as they were by that time – to seclude himself in a lost corner of the world, for the sake of adventure. Because he would never have resigned himself to be “just a bench scientist”, working in a lab, and despised even his own – quite marvellous – discoveries.

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At a street crossing in Nha Trang, Yersin and his master are commemorated

All of this, this brilliant and solitary – but probably not lonely – destiny, is incredibly well rendered in the book by Patrick Deville. Not only does it make an impressive, and probably very true portrait of the man, the explorer, the scientist, but it also creates a broader painting of the era he lived through: Germany then France before and during the World Wars, and the rest of the world, changing faster and faster as the speed of travel and the exchange of knowledge grows. It is a fascinating glimpse into that period, and into that life, and a must-read whether or not you are fascinated with the strange lives of lesser-known microbiologists (as I am, but I’ll accept it might not be a common passion). I think it has been translated into english (I should probably check those details first, but there you are), if not, it should be.

Quotes (in French, and I won’t even attempt to translate them):

1st sentence : La vieille main tavelée au pouce fendu écarte un voilage de pongé.

La vie est en ces lieux un rachat du péché de vivre

On déroule souvent l’histoire des sciences comme un boulevard qui mènerait droit de l’ignorance à la vérité mais c’est faux. C’est un lacis de voies sans issues où la pensée se fourvoie et s’empêtre. Une compilation d’échecs lamentables et parfois rigolos.

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Sunset around Nha Trang. I guess it doesn’t seem that mysterious to choose this place to build an institute

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