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Street Cred: Yersin

If you’ve been following this column, then you’ve probably noticed the pattern of folks getting famous for taking a stance and sticking up for Vietnam. By now, you should know that Vietnamese people are a fiercely proud bunch and they’re not predispositioned to back down from a fight.

But, you don’t necessarily have to be anti-Mongolian, anti-American, anti-French or anti-Chinese to stake your claim on a Saigon street name. You can simply be anti-bacteria and that’s enough to put yourself on the map. This week, we’re putting Alexandre Yersin under the microscope to see how he made a street name for himself here in Vietnam.

While not as celebrated or popular as Louis Pasteur, Alexandre Yersin certainly held his own in the field of microbiology. Born in 1863 in Switzerland, Yersin studied medicine at prestigious institutions across Switzerland, Germany, and France. In 1888, he became a naturalized French citizen so that he could practice medicine there.  

In 1890, Yersin was shipped off to Vietnam to become a physician for the Messageries Maritime Company. Going to Asia would prove to be the greatest career move he ever made. 


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In 1894, while investigating the Manchurian Pneumonic Plague in Hong Kong, Yersin discovered the bacterium that causes the bubonic plague. The bubonic plague had been responsible for The Black Death in 14th century Europe, resulting in the deaths of up to 200 million people.

For the remainder of his life, Yersin would spend most of his time in Vietnam. In addition to conducting further research on the bubonic plague, Yersin also dabbled in agriculture. He imported rubber trees from Brazil for cultivation (rubber farming has grown into a $2 billion+ industry in Vietnam) and even took a stab at preventing malaria by acclimatizing trees that contained quinine, a substance proven effective in the fight against the disease. 

Already famous for discovering small things, Yersin was also credited for discovering the site that would eventually become the city of Dalat. When he passed away in 1943, Yersin was a renowned figure all over the world, but nowhere more so than in his adopted country of Vietnam.

He was buried in Nha Trang, with the epitaph, “Benefactor and humanist, venerated by the Vietnamese people” etched on his gravestone.   

About the writer:

California is where he’s from, Saigon is where he’s at and this column is where he could be found. If you’re looking for a freelance writer specializing in Vietnam, please contact Vinh at vinh@berkeley.edu.

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