Exhibition stirs old dispute over discovery of bubonic plague cause

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 August, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 August, 1997, 12:00am

An exhibition at the Museum of Medical Sciences has renewed a controversy over who discovered the cause of the 1894 outbreak of bubonic plague which struck Hong Kong.

The dispute started exactly 103 years ago yesterday when a Japanese bacteriologist, Shibasaburo Kitasato, claimed the discovery in the British medical journal, The Lancet.

The bacillus was subsequently named Yersinia pestis, after his French rival Alexandre Yersin.

The permanent exhibition features the diaries of colonial doctor James Lowson, who worked closely with Kitasato.

The diaries form the basis of a full re-examination of the dispute by Tom Solomon, a medical history researcher at the British Centre for Tropical and Infectious Diseases at the John Radcliffe Hospital, Oxford, and were published in The Lancet last month.

They were released in slides to the museum by Lowson's granddaughter.

The new study credits Lowson with helping to stop the plague, but blames him for possibly delaying the discovery of the bacillus by rushing Kitasato into publishing incomplete findings.

Covering the plague period during the summer of 1894, the diaries relate Lowson's relationships with Kitasato and Yersin.

'The diaries provide a very interesting and important background to this scientific controversy,' said Queen Mary Hospital consultant pathologist Robert Collins, who helped set up the plague exhibition.

The Lancet study said that Lowson had helped institute sanitary and disinfection measures to stop the plague that killed more than 450 Hong Kong people in 1894.

But because of personal and professional antipathy, Lowson refused to provide bodies of plague victims to Yersin, who eventually isolated the bacillus from lymph glands that had been collected by British sailors from corpses.

The study said Lowson may have rushed Kitasato - already a world-famous bacteriologist at the time - into publishing incomplete findings based on samples that might have been contaminated.