Tony Gould

Of rats and men

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.

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