Exhibition recalls historic research in plague fight

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 25 May, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 25 May, 2008, 12:00am

More than 100 years ago, working out of a straw hut in Kennedy Town, a young French chemist barely out of university made history when he isolated the bacteria responsible for one of the most destructive diseases.

Alexandre Yersin's discovery of the Yersinia pestis organism put medical science on the road to understanding and controlling the bubonic plague.

In 1894, the disease was eating away at Hong Kong, claiming 94 per cent of the people it infected. In a span of 20 years, more than 20,000 inhabitants succumbed.

Yersin left Paris after studying in the laboratory of Louis Pasteur, becoming a doctor on a ship bound for Southeast Asia. After spending three years exploring Vietnam, the 24-year-old chemist was told by the French government to journey to Hong Kong to investigate a deadly outbreak.

'Yersin did not receive a warm welcome from the local authorities. He was initially refused access to any of the bodies of plague victims,' said Tina Yee-wan Pang, curator of the University Museum and Art Gallery at University of Hong Kong, which with the French consulate is hosting an exhibition celebrating the 120th anniversary of the Institut Pasteur.

'However, with the help of an Italian missionary, Father Vigano, who acted as his interpreter and guide, he finally got access to bodies.'

Yersin had to bribe British sailors for the bodies. And so under the most basic conditions - a laboratory housed in a straw hut in Kennedy Town - Yersin painstakingly began to study the corpses, slowly unravelling the secrets of the disease.

But he was not alone - Japanese scientist Shibasaburo Kitasato, who had arrived in the city a few days before him, was also separately researching the bodies.

Amazingly, they simultaneously pinpointed the bacterium causing the disease.

Yersin's research, however, was better publicised, hence his name formed the basis of its Latin name.

The university's exhibition, which opens on Wednesday, explores the history of infectious diseases in Hong Kong from the time of the plague in 1894 to the present day. It highlights some of the challenges that virologists continue to face today.

'We hope the exhibition can deliver the message of the importance of global collaboration in the identification and prevention of deadly epidemics, such as dengue fever, avian influenza, and Sars,' Ms Pang said.