Plague, Anti-plague vaccine and serums in India

Pranav Sharma

Alexandre Yersin. Credit: Wikipedia

Alexandre Yersin arrived in Bombay on March 5, 1897. Yersin worked as an assistant at the Pasteur Institute but left the Paris laboratory in 1890. In 1894 he was commissioned by the French government to investigate the appearance of the bubonic plague in Hong Kong, where he identified its bacillus and cultured plague microbes. These were then shipped to Paris for further investigation.

La peste bubonique à Hong-Kong / A.E.J. Yersin.. Credit: Wellcome CollectionPublic Domain Mark

The drive to develop an anti-diphtheria serum met with swift success around the mid-1890s. It also represented an important milestone in the history of bacteriology. It was also a shift from preventive medicine based on vaccines to curative medicine based on serums.

French researchers faced a different challenge when it came to anti-plague serum, Yersin returned to Indochina, where, in 1896, a plague epidemic broke out. Yersin was able to conduct his first human trials of the remedy serum, curing 24 of 26 cases. Following news of these successful tests, the city of Bombay invited Yersin to administer his preparation among the thousands of people struck with bubonic plague there starting in September 1896.

Arriving in Bombay, Yersin carried with him two serums, the one he used in Guangzhou and another one that had arrived from Paris. Taken together, the results of the three series of trials, including new testing conducted with the Paris serum, differed from the findings in China, given that the overall mortality rate reached 50%.

Although his stay was short, he was still able to test the curative power of the serums. It was also used as a vaccine providing immunity from the plague.

A plague house in Bombay: the wall has been marked with circles. Photograph, 1896/1897.. Credit: Wellcome CollectionPublic Domain Mark

Pranav Sharma is a Science Historian and the Curator of the project on documenting the history of the Indo-French scientific partnership.