Paul Louis Simond in India and the Discovery of Plague TRANSMISSION

Bombay plague epidemic, 1896-1897: interior of a plague hospital. Photograph attributed to Clifton & Co. Credit: Wellcome CollectionPublic Domain Mark

Paul-Louis Simond after studying in Bordeaux joined the Naval Medical Corps and was posted to French Guyana and the Far East. In 1895, he went to the Pasteur Institute in Paris where he followed Emile Roux’s teaching and worked in Elie Metchnikoff’s laboratory. During this time Simond studied coccidia in the intestinal flora of various animals. 

In March 1897, at Emile Roux’s request, Simond travelled to India (Bombay and Cutch-Mandvi in 1897; Jurrachee in 1898 [subsequently Karachi]) to replace Yersin in fieldwork. 

A large plague pandemic was making people suffer in Asia and Simond’s task, which he accepted with enthusiasm, was to help test the new Pasteur antiserum prepared from live cultures of Y. pestis. Beginner’s luck worked in his favour but not for long, later tests of serotherapy were disheartening despite which he continued furthering his research, looking for infected patients with the help of the-then French Consul in Bombay, Joseph Pilinski. 

During his research excursions, he observed that a large number of patients developed skin phlyctena that are small blisters that have plague bacilli and some fluid. These were early-stage patients. He then hypothesized that this phlyctena swells to become a neurotic buboe. The quest was to find the vector for the disease, the way it transmits and spreads, he thought that the initial lesion can be due to an insect bite. The concept of transmission was new to the fraternity, therefore it was treated with scepticism. 

Amongst sceptic academia, he found support for his thesis from his mentor and the man who first studied the malaria parasite in the blood, Charles-Louis Alphonse Laveran. His initial thoughts were that the cockroach could be a vector. However, it was counterintuitive to think of it as one because of its lack of mobility. Since rats were quite mobile and were prevalent everywhere, he thought that rat flea might have some clues and started studying it. It required temerity much more than it required courage to manipulate dead rats with bare hands and pick up their fleas in soaped water, but Simond was rewarded. Upon microscopic observation, he found that these fleas were full of bacilli. It was a moment of discovery. 

The Karachi Experiments

Paul-Louis Simond injecting plague vaccine June 4th 1898. Credit: Wikipedia

“Without delay, I proceeded to the experiment I had in mind since the time in Cutch-Mandvi when I had discovered Yersin’s bacillus in the digestive tract of fleas taken from plague-ridden rats. I prepared a device consisting of a large glass bottle whose bottom was covered with sand, which would absorb the urine of the rats. The lid consisted of wire mesh covered with fabric held tightly to the neck of the bottle with a drawstring. I was fortunate enough to catch a plague-infected rat in the home of a plague victim. In the rat’s fur, there were several fleas running around. I took advantage of the generosity of a cat I found stalking the hotel premises, borrowing some fleas from it. Once the sick rat was in the bottle, I deposited upon it the cat’s fleas from a test tube. I was thus quite sure the rat would be covered with parasites. After 24 hours the animal I was experimenting on rolled up into a little ball, with its hair standing on end; it seemed to be in agony. I then introduced into the bottle a small metal cage containing a perfectly healthy young Alexandria rat caught several weeks before and kept sequestered from any danger of infection. The cage was suspended with the inside of the bottle several centimetres above the layer of sand. The cage had three solid sides, but the other three sides were covered by a wire screen with a mesh size of about six millimetres. The rat inside the cage could not have any contact with the sick rat, the wall of the bottle or the sand. The next morning the sick rat had died without having moved from where it had been the day before. I left its body in the bottle for one more day. Then I carefully removed it, plunged it into alcohol and performed an autopsy. The blood and organs all contained an abundance of Yersin’s Bacillus. During the next four days, the other Alexandria rat remained imprisoned in its cage and continued to eat normally. About the fifth day, it seemed to have difficulty moving. By the evening of the sixth day, it was dead. An autopsy of this one (previously uninfected rat) revealed buboes both inguinal and axillary. The kidney and liver were swollen and congested. There were abundant plague bacilli in the organs and blood. That day, 2 June 1898, I felt an emotion that was inexpressible in the face of the thought that I had uncovered a secret that had tortured man since the appearance of plague in the world. The mechanism of the propagation of plague includes the transporting of the microbe by rat and man, its transmission from rat to rat, from human to human, from rat to human and from human to rat by parasites. Prophylactic measures, therefore, ought to be directed against each of these three factors: rats, humans and parasites. I subsequently repeated the same experiment with similar results” [Paul Louis Simond, Hotel Reynolds, Karachi, 1897] [A]

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


[A] Simond M, Godley ML, Mouriquand PDE. Paul-Louis Simond and His Discovery of Plague Transmission by Rat Fleas: A Centenary. Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine. 1998;91(2):101-104.

Aviation in India and France: Blériot and Tata, the first steps

Samuel Berthet

J.R.D. Tata with a Tata Airline airplane in 1963

My first important memories from the point of view of a growing child, blessed with a fairly observant and inquisitive mind, were about cars and aeroplanes. My father decided that we needed a home of our own in which to spend holidays, and he picked on a new and developing beach resort on the Channel coast of France, south of Boulogne, called Hardelot, where he not only bought a villa but later on built a number of villas and shops as real estate developer. In fact, of the two main streets of Hardelot was officially named Avenue des Indes. 

It happened that the legendary Louis Bleriot, who acquired world fame in 1909 by being the first to fly a plane across the Channel, also chose Hardelot for his family’s summer resort. Bleriot built not only a fine villa close to ours but also a hangar near the beach. On the beach his personal plane used to land much to the excitement of everyone there – grown ups and children, none more starry eyed than myself. From then on I was hopelessly hooked on aeroplanes and made up my mind that, come what may, one day I would be a pilot. I had to wait many years for that dream to come true[i].” 

R.M Lala, Behind the Last Blue Mountain, A life of JRD Tata, pp. 17-18, Penguin, 1992 
Louis Blériot’s airplane being prepared for his cross channel flight

Louis Blériot flying over from France to England over the Channel is a landmark in aviation history, arguably the first “long distance” flight in history. Five years later, the path of the pioneer of aviation will meet the one of a 10 years young French boy named J.R.D. Tata who will become the first Indian to have a flying license. J. R. D. Tata was born, mostly schooled and grown up in France. He learnt piloting in France, before shifting base to India, renouncing his French citizenship in 1929, and getting a license from the Aero Club of India and Burma associated Royal Aero Club of Great Britain. His license reads in French as well as in English: Fédération Aéronautique Internationale, British Empire:

Nous soussignés pouvoir sportif reconnu par la FIA pour l’Empire Britannique que Mr Jeangir Ratan Tata born at Paris on 29-7-1904 ayant rempli toutes les conditions imposées par la FAI a été reconnu a été breveté pilote-aviateur. 

We, the undersigned sporting authority recognized by the FIA for the British Empire, that Mr Jeangir Ratan Tata born at Paris on 29-7-1904 having fulfilled all the conditions imposed by the FAI has been recognized as a pilot-aviator license.

As a matter of fact, the federation was launched in Paris in October 1905 where its first conference was held.  

Excerpt from International Aviation Magazine

Two new chapters in the history of Indo-French aeronautics were written even before for J. R. Tata to get its license in 1926 thanks to Dieudonné Coste and Jean Rignot.[ii] The first one was the first to fly the South Atlantic before successfully attempting the deadly cross Paris-New York. In November that year, the two famous pilots break the record of long distance flight through a 5 396 km long flight between Paris and Djask in Iran, over a 32 hours journey (28th-29th October), then from there to Karachi,  and Patna, reaching Calcutta on 5th November where they are celebrated like hero. They flew back with their Breguet 19 equipped with a Hispano 500 engine through a slightly different itinerary via Delhi, Karachi, Bassora, Alep, Athens and Rome reaching Le Bourget near Paris on 11th with 21 mails. It seems that they flew again in the same month to Hanoi via Karachi and Calcutta. In January 1930, Pierre Weiss and Lucien Girier fly between Istres and Pondichery, landing more precisely in Souttoucany on a Breguet 19 TR Bidon propelled by once again by a Hispano-Suiza engine. Their flight is widely publicized in the French newspaper leading to a much attended conference titled “Raid de Pondichéry”.  

In the meanwhile, the passion for aviation sown in J.R.D Tata and his siblings grew only bigger. It paved the way for a unique aeronautic saga: “the early pilots have long been forgotten”, he said. “Who remembers today the name of Adolphe Pegoud, Bleriot’s chief pilot? To me Pegoud was one of the bravest and most foolhardy men that ever lived, for he was not only the first in the world to loop the loop but did so inverted, because as those early planes did not have enough power to climb into a loop in the normal way, Pegoud had to do so by diving beyond the vertical. Poor Pegoud must have been hanging on his flimsy belt the whole way around, with no parachute to save him in case the plane broke up, as he must have expected it to do[iii].” “When J.R.D Tata flew in France, he enjoyed the experience of landing in little fields and whenever possible visited various friends to give them joy rides.” 

J.R.D had arranged with his brother Darab to land at his college near Rouen. ‘I’d asked him to put a white strip to guide my landing. Darab’s brilliant sport teacher put the strip right in the middle of the football field, between the goal posts. So naturally I had to search for a more suitable one which I found nearby. I managed to give Darab the promised joy ride[iv].” 

Tata’s history with aviation is a collective one, a real saga. J.R.D said: “My elder sister, Sylla Petit was the first Indian lady to get her flying license in India. Later, also having learned at the Bombay Flying Club, my younger sister Rodabeh was the second Indian lady to get her flying license in India. But unquestionably the best flyer and most naturally gifted airman among us all, was my youngest brother, Jamshed or Jimmy (…). A born flyer, Jimmy was released solo only after four hours[v].“ 

J.R.D Tata’s pilot liscence

Combining the skill of a pilot with the qualities of an entrepreneur, J.R.D. Tata inaugurated the first Tata Aviation service on 15 October 1932, taking off from Karachi to Bombay on a Puss Moth. This was the first air service in India, and just a new chapter in a long saga in the history of aeronautics in India, one that started in France and would be linked to France in the coming years too.  

[i] R.M Lala, Behind the Last Blue Mountain, A life of JRD Tata, pp. 17-18, Penguin, 1992 

[ii] Samuel Berthet : La culture française en Inde de 1870 à 1962 : présences et actions : dynamiques indiennes et politique française, thèse de l’Université de Nantes, 2002, p. 336. 

[iii] R.M Lala, Behind the Last Blue Mountain, p. 82 

[iv] Idem., . 85. 

[v] Idem., p. 89.