The history of science is often rolled out as a broad avenue leading straight from ignorance to truth, but that is false. The history of science is a network of dead ends in which thought loses its way and ties itself up in knots. An anthology of pitiful failures, some quite ridiculous.
Yersinia pestis, the bubonic plague, named after its discoverer Dr Alexandre Yersin, a Frenchman taken under the wing of microbiologist Louis Pasteur. His name is not a well known one but this is his story.
Yersin’s story is told against a backdrop of turmoil that was 20th century Europe. The narrative wobbles between 1940 and earlier moments in the timeline which I found hard to keep track of. Indeed the historical events were a huge help in placing the time. I think it would be a real struggle if you weren’t somewhat familiar with the history. I found it easily to place myself in time via Louis Pasteur’s work, but only because I’ve read (and magically absorbed lots of fact from) Rabid.
I have to admit I was much more absorbed in the second half than the first, and contemplated putting it down. Once he settled in Vietnam, I became fascinated with his chicken experiments and his interest in botany. Little things like trying to find the right growing conditions for the tree that provides quinine (Malaria was a real problem in the area). He had his fingers in many pies and it was a little sad that his contemporaries were forever being awarded Nobel prizes, but his great discovery, that of the plague bacillus, came before the prize existed.
Amazingly, most of Yersin’s correspondence was saved, discovered years after his death in the Pasteur Institute. Pitched as a novel, it does feel much more like a biography, and it sounds like there was plenty of material to go on. Nothing much was embroidered upon and many aspects were touched on so briefly, it seems that the author didn’t want to make things up. Then again, there are some thoughtful snippets that may not have come from the man himself.
Because at the end of the day, one may or may not have a vaccine against plague but never, as one knows full well, will a vaccine be found against the death of friends, there is no sense in thinking it will.
I wonder if Yersin would have liked all the travel titbits. There is a moment where he is dealing with his biographer and he wished he wasn’t steered away from talking about exploration; everyone wanted to know about the plague. His travels are relevant to his discoveries but I found myself glazing over a lot. If you’re interested in the history of microbiology, there’s better books out there but if you are genuinely interested in the man, and his place in history, there’s plenty of food for thought.
I did learn some interesting things, like the origin of the word “posh” (port out, starboard return). And Yersin probably invented Coco Cola, but didn’t patent it. Yet I got to the ending and was left wondering where cholera was (there’s a short passage in which one of his friends dies of the disease, but if there was more, I must have skipped over it).
Plague and Cholera has been translated from the original French to English by J.A. Underwood and will be published by Little Brown in hardback and ebook formats on 27th February 2014. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.
Shelve next to: Rabid by Bill Wasik + Monica Murphy
Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.
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