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Of rats and men

24 August 2002

12:00 AM

24 August 2002

12:00 AM


Picador, pp.288, 14.99

This racy tale of plague in the modern era focuses on two outbreaks 100 years apart: Hong Kong 1894 and Surat 1994. Edward Marriott treats the earlier outbreak as an episode of medical detection, in which two competing scientists, a famous Japanese and a less well-known Frenchman, are bent on discovering the bacillus that causes bubonic plague, and the later one as an example of what happens to people when plague strikes, how they behave in a panic situation. These parallel stories are intercalated by other actual, or narrowly averted, or potential outbreaks of plague in San Francisco, Madagascar, Japan and New York. The rather complex and non-chronological form of the book leads to some confusion and repetition, but Marriott wears his research lightly and has written an intelligent, engrossing and, above all, highly readable account of an intriguing subject.

Ever since Paul de Kruif produced his best-selling Microbe Hunters in 1926, writers have been exploring the rich seam of human interest in stories of medical detection. The goings-on in Hong Kong in 1894 provide Marriott with excellent material: apart from the principals – the self-regarding Professor Shibasaburo Kitasato with his retinue of Japanese subordinates and the self-effacing Swiss-French loner, Dr Alexandre Yersin – the supporting cast of British Hong Kong doctors and administrators contains some relishable monsters, particularly the Scottish Dr James Lowson. This ‘strange brew of passion and misanthropy’ fawned on the suave and demanding Kitasato, providing his team with everything they could possibly require, but treated the gauche and unassertive Yersin with contempt, obstructing his research in every way. Yet against all the odds, it was Yersin who came up with the goods. Despite Kitasato’s initially successful attempt to claim the credit for discovering the plague bacillus, its scientific name, Yersinia pestis, tells its own story.

Yersin proved himself in every respect the more imaginative and thorough investigator, not content to remain in the laboratory, as Kitasato was, but – like a good detective – tirelessly searching the environment for clues. It was he who fingered the rat as the main suspect in the spread of plague and, appropriately, his follower Dr Paul-Louis Simond provided the missing link, the mode of transmission from rat to human, the rat flea. Unlike Kitasato, Yersin did not regard his job as done once he had discovered the bacillus, but when he left Hong Kong he set about manufacturing a vaccine with which he was able to save lives both there and elsewhere when, as he had predicted, the plague became pandemic.

Kitasato, on the other hand, returned to Japan, where he preened himself on having solved the mystery of the plague. His nemesis came, also appropriately, two years later when another Japanese researcher, Masanori Ogata, investigating the plague in Formosa, pointed out that the bacilli identified by Kitasato and Yersin were not identical and that the one that caused the plague was Yersin’s. Nevertheless, Kitasato continued to assert the primacy of his discovery, deliberately blurring the differences between his and Yersin’s bacillus, while at the same time either ignoring Yersin’s existence or, in a single reference to his rival, loftily dismissing his anti-plague serum as ineffective. Though he died with his scientific reputation intact, posterity has elevated the modest and much maligned Yersin above him in this satisfying re-enactment of the fable of the tortoise and the hare.

In telling the story of Yersin and Kitasato – and Lowson and the rest – Marriott takes novelistic liberties, the telltale ‘would haves’ and ‘must haves’ featuring largely, as in: ‘Climbing uphill from the shore, finally inside a rickshaw, Yersin would have worried about the effect of the rain

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