three pairs of lovers with space

CAN A WORTHY SCIENTIST BE A PEDOPHILE? THE ALEXANDRE YERSIN CASE BY LOUIS GESCHENK

 

Alexandre Yersin (1863-1943) was an eminent Swiss-born physician and bacteriologist who was naturalised French and spent most of his life in the French protectorate of Annam.

The following account of his sexuality is this website’s translation of "Un savant estimable peut-il être pédophile? Le cas Alexandre Yersin" by Louis Geschenk, an article published in the online journal L’Élu, No. 2, 2009, pp. 106-114, and is presented here with the author’s kind permission.

Despite the title, it should be noted at once that Geschenk also describes Yersin’s sexuality as “paiderastic”, which the translator believes likely to be more accurate than “pedophilic” (a point elaborated in footnote 10).

 

Can a worthy scientist be a pedophile? The Alexandre Yersin case

German edition of Mollaret & Brossolet's biography of Yersin

Before proceeding to the reflections provoked by my reading of the biography of Alexandre Yersin by Henri Mollaret and Jacqueline Brossolet[1], I would first like to stress the esteem that I have for the work of these two authors, who have now disappeared[2]. From the first to the last line, their work is imbued with the deep respect they have for the discoverer of the plague bacillus. The documentation on which they rely is extensive and flawless; it is never extraneous to the subject, but lends itself harmoniously to the development of the story, so that reading their book is a real pleasure.

It is precisely the intellectual honesty of these two biographers that makes interesting their inability to draw correct conclusions from the evidence they present. We are not faced with a desire to deny or conceal facts that some may find unpleasant: the facts in question are well exposed. We are faced with a psychological blockage: the impossibility of admitting that a benefactor of humanity could have experienced feelings and known loves that modern society condemns as an abomination. There is no doubt that Alexandre Yersin loved very young boys. However, H. Mollaret and J. Brossolet, while demonstrating the matter, deny that Alexandre Yersin was a pedophile - pedophile in the modern psychiatric sense of the term.

*    *    *

Let us first recall what humanity owes to Alexandre Yersin, and who this man was

Born in the Vaudois countryside near Aubonne (Switzerland) on 22 September 1863 to a Protestant family, he was the posthumous son of a self-taught entomologist (1829-1863) who earned his living as a master at the college in Morges and then as an intendant of powders[3]. He received the paternal first name of Alexandre in homage to the latter. He had an older brother, Franck, with whom he had little affinity, and an older sister, Émilie, to whom he, in contrast, felt very close, as is attested by the correspondence exchanged with her.

Alexandre Yersin studied medicine first in Germany, in Marburg, then in Paris, where he met Louis Pasteur and Émile Roux at the École normale supérieure in rue d'Ulm. He entered their service and completed his thesis - on diphtheria - in 1888, the same year the Pasteur Institute was created. The law of the time reserving the practice of medicine to the French only, Yersin applied for his naturalisation, which he easily obtained: his mother had indeed Huguenot origins proven by genealogical documents. Émile Roux associated Alexandre Yersin with his work (notably on tuberculosis, where his disciple showed great talents) and relied more and more on him for teaching at the Pasteur Institute. Unfortunately, if Yersin had a taste for research - this is indisputable - he had another avowed passion, more anchored in "real life": travel. More precisely, he felt the vocation of an explorer. Thanks to his mother’s high-ranking connections, he succeeded in being recruited in 1890 as a doctor in the Messageries maritimes[4], which allowed him to discover the Philippines and Indochina. It should be noted immediately that Alexandre Yersin, who traveled with porters on his visits to these two countries, was also always escorted by a boy, sometimes by two boys. Exploration of the Moi region pleased him enough that he obtained from the governor of Indochina the implementation of several official missions of exploration. During one of them, he spotted and pointed out a region distinguished by its climate, vegetation, and landscape: the Lang Bian plateau. In this privileged area, the city of Dalat was created, a place of stay and rest for tuberculosis patients, as well as for colonials exhausted by the tropical heat.

Alexandre Yersin on the plateau of Lang Biang, 1893

Because of his skills, Yersin was commissioned to carry out a study of the plague in Yunnan, where a hotbed of infection seemed to threaten China and Tonkin. He chose to go to another hotbed, where he thought he would benefit from more facilities for this study: Hong Kong. It was there that in a few days, after having resolved administrative difficulties, he was able to identify, by taking buboes from corpses, an ovoid-shaped, Gram-negative[5] bacillus capable of killing mice by septicemia, which was none other than the agent of the plague. The Japanese bacteriologist Kitasato (1853-1931), present in Hong Kong before Yersin and supported by the English authorities, has long been associated with this discovery, but it is now known that the bacillus observed by Kitasato, described as Gram-positive, does not was not the agent of the plague (which is, let us remember, Gram-negative). The plague bacillus has rightly received the name Yersinia pestis.

Hong Kong during the 1894 outbreak of bubonic plague there

Yersin always maintained strong relations with the Pasteur Institute and the followers of Pasteur, notably with Émile Roux (1853-1933) and with Albert Calmette (1863-1933), who headed the Pasteur Institute in Saigon. As early as 1895 he established the basis for vaccination against plague and the treatment of the sick by serotherapy. In 1896, in China, he achieved the first cure of a plague patient by serotherapy, but this method subsequently met with failures, due to difficulties in obtaining a fully effective serum.

Yersin settled on the Cochinchinese coast, in Nha Trang[6], founded a Pasteur Institute there, and then, surrounded by competent collaborators, he embarked on numerous researches in tropical zootechnics and agronomy. His two greatest successes were the establishment in Indochina of rubber trees and varieties of Cinchona allowing the procurement of quinine. When he died in Nha Trang on 28 February 1943, he received unanimous homage from the local population as well as from the indigenous and French authorities. The charisma of Alexander Yersin was such that he is still the object of a sort of veneration in Vietnam today.

Photo by Yersin of his medical work in Annam

So much for the scholar and for the public man; as regards the private man, Henri Mollaret and Jacqueline Brossolet had the chance to get to know him better thanks to the abundant correspondence[7] that Alexandre Yersin exchanged with his mother, from his stay for studies in Marburg, until her death in 1905, as well as with his sister Émilie and with his nephew Adolphe.

The question before us is posed by the two biographers beginning with the preface to their book. They stress the “secret to the utmost” character of their hero, and the fact that he “felt comfortable only in the midst of children and the humble.” These two sentences are a testimony of the Director General of the Pasteur Institute of Indochina, Hubert Marneffe (1901-1970), who added: “It was to them that he gave his whole heart and lavished the marks of his extreme goodness.“ Drawing on other testimonies, the authors point out about their hero “his early aversion to young girls.” It was doubtless Henri Mollaret who then issued this judgment: “Certainly his vocation was not marital. Was it uncertain, ambiguous even,  as some have insinuated? I don’t think so: if he could be suspected of pedophilia, it was because his shyness made him feel more at ease among children than among adults. ” So the question is asked right away, and right away — it seems — discharged. However, such an attitude, which is very subjective, is in no way justified. On the contrary, the testimonies of this correspondence prove the soundness of the rumour that would run about Alexander Yersin. It was still necessary, in order to admit it, not to have an a priori hostility to the subject of the love of boys. This was not the case for Henri Mollaret and Jacqueline Brossolet, who, well fitted to their time, made a judgment consistent with the distorting prejudices of the epoch. Studied without preventive blinkers, Alexandre Yersin appears to us as a big-hearted man who succeeded in happily integrating his love of young boys into his existence as a free man.

*  *  *

Let us examine the facts in question

Alexandre Yersin, ca. 1905

Our two biographers are at the outset struck - and they are honest to write it - by the "almost shocking" insensitivity of Alexandre Yersin, then a medical student at Marburg, to the suffering of adults. He attends, without showing the slightest emotion, amputations performed on poorly anaesthetized patients. Such coldness contrasts with a "pity in the face of suffering childhood" which he will demonstrate throughout his life. "In the face of childhood" specify Mollaret and Brossolet. It is necessary to correct this: in front of male childhood. For feminine childhood hardly moves Yersin. A testimony to this indifference: he appreciates technically a tracheotomy performed on a little girl of three. He holds the struggling girl's feet firm, but, unable to avoid a spray of mucus and blood, he stoically reassures his mother: "I washed my head and hair properly on my return." In his letters to his mother, however, he refers in contrast to sick boys as his "little friends”[8], and expresses his grief when one of them does not survive his illness. As for his misogyny, it is expressed without restraint. He refers to girls by the charming name of "female monkeys"[9]. Yersin declines an invitation to go out from a student friend, whom he holds in high regard, when he learns that this friend will be accompanied by "female monkeys."

One may be surprised at such frankness and candour. But it is important not to lose sight of two important points: 1) these are private confidences given to the person who knew him best, to whom he felt closest: his mother. 2) we are at a time when the psychiatric notion of "pedophilia" has not yet been born[10]. Yersin, an industrious student of Protestant education, could hardly have heard of pederasty, and the notion of homosexuality, although already debated in Germany, had not yet invaded the field of everyday life. On the other hand, it is clear that as he gets older and progresses into a very homophobic twentieth century, Alexandre Yersin will eventually become aware of the (relative) singularity of his feelings for young boys, and of the incongruity, the danger indeed of confiding them to anyone. He will never divulge his inclinations for boys again, though he did, ingenuously, during his school years. The narrative, a true story, which he confided to his mother when he was twenty-two years old and studying medicine in Paris, will have no replica thereafter. It is therefore important to recount it in detail here, as Mollaret and Brossolet did honestly but without daring to draw the logical conclusions from such confidences.

A boy received into the Apprentice Orphans of Auteuil in 1892

The story begins in Paris, rue Madame, where Yersin, who was then studying medicine, was staying at the Hôtel Dieu. A crowd of screaming and fidgeting kids catches his attention. Yersin goes to meet them and finds that a 12-year-old boy has been injured in the eye. A grocer, exasperated by the cries of children playing in front of his shop, indeed came out to chase them away with a whip, and it was during this punishment that the young boy's eye was touched. Yersin decides to take the injured child to the Hotel Dieu. The intern who examines him washes the eye with boric water, and reassures that it is nothing: the recovery will be very fast. Yersin then accompanies his little protégé to the home of his father, who lives nearby in the rue de l'Hotel de Ville. With the description of the dark and sordid attic where the father, a shoemaker by trade, a girl of sixteen to eighteen years old and "a little thing aged four to five" (these are the terms that Yersin employs) sleep in a common bed, one is immersed in the middle of a novel by Zola. The medical student obtains the father’s assurance that his son visit him in rue Madame after catechism lessons. It is clear that Yersin wants to attach this boy to himself: he offers to give him some small coins in exchange for small favors (shining shoes, for example). The kid actually comes round to rue Madame and tells his life story to his protector: he is orphaned of his mother, has a divorced older sister, an alcoholic father who very often comes home drunk in the evening. He goes to catechism because he counts on obtaining the clothes distributed by the good fathers at Christmas time. And just then, after Christmas, the kid's visits become less frequent, then cease during the month of January 1886. But Yersin persists: he goes to the Works of the Apprentice Orphans of Auteuil and tries to get Father Roussel, the person in charge of the Works, to accommodate his protégé. Unfortunately, the establishment is full, and could not accommodate a new orphan until June 1887. Yersin grumbles, even pesters Father Roussel, but remains powerless. Some time later, he stops talking to his mother about this boy he met by chance and whom he would have liked so much to keep with him.

One sees well, thanks to this episode, that one is dealing with more than a "simple pity in the face of suffering childhood”. A feeling of compassion would have been satisfied with the healing of the injured child's eye. Yersin’s approach to the father to attach the boy to his service demonstrates feelings much deeper and more powerful than mere philanthropy towards "suffering childhood."

Moi photographed by Yersin, ca. 1894

The incontestably paiderastic feelings of Alexandre Yersin will be satisfied in Indochina, where the doctor will find a new homeland. We have convincing testimonies attesting to the extraordinary ease with which, at that time, a European could bind himself to a little Vietnamese. Professor Georges Hérelle (1848-1935), author, under the pseudonym of L.-R. de Pogey-Castires of a History of Greek Love in Antiquity, collected such testimonies from soldiers who stayed in China and Tonkin around 1900[11]. One of them recounted that in Indochina all the officers took on boys and often made these boys their bedfellows. "One pays the boys five or six piastres a month — he testified. If one offers them fifteen or twenty piastres, they know what it means, and, according to their intentions, accept or refuse”. Another soldier, named Henri Jeoffrai, who had very seriously fallen in love with a boy prostitute in a Beijing brothel[12] and who praised to Georges Hérelle the bewitching gentleness of little Chinese boys, was shocked and sickened by the too great abundance of the propositions he received in Tonkin.

So Mollaret and Brossollet show a certain ingenuity persevering in the position set out their preface, while accumulating evidence of their hero's pedophilia. Thus, when they note (p. 252), “Even if he closed his house to the unfortunate, to officials and to tourists, the children of Nha Trang had free access (…)”. Yersin allowed the boys to look into his astronomical telescope, introduced them to the mechanism of his beautiful Swiss watch, and organized cinema screenings during which he projected Charlot's films.

Le Zèbre, 1913

There is still this significant detail: the good doctor had to travel a lot in southern Indochina, and he imported the strongest and fastest models of car from Europe: he was a true enthusiast of the wheel. Until one day a little boy who was about to cross the road tripped and was nearly run over by the Le Zèbre car driven by Dr. Yersin. The latter, impressed at having escaped a tragedy, sold his Le Zèbre and thereafter only rode a Peugeot bicycle...

Let us further add the existence of more or less self-proclaimed putative "sons", some of whom worked at the Pasteur Institute in Nha Trang, and we will have completed the picture which seems to us to establish Yersin's love for little boys quite clearly. I also attribute, for my part, his particular taste, attested at the end of his life, for certain Greek and Latin authors he liked to translate, in his search for traces of this love - traces always comforting when found in other eminent men.

Alexandre Yersin was fortunate to live in a country where, in that blessed time, such love was taken for granted and posed no other problem than that of indispensable mutual agreement. Had he lived in our time, his pedophilia would undoubtedly have been denounced, and perhaps he would have had, like Dr. Gajdusek, Nobel Prize in medicine, pioneer of research on prions, a career broken forever by a trial and imprisonment, following the sneaking of brave and irreproachable colleagues[13].

Alexandre Yersin in 1933

Let us continue to pay tribute to Dr. Yersin, but let us do it with full knowledge of the facts. For my part, everything I have said about his love for boys makes him grow bigger in my eyes: I admire this man for having known how to organize his career and his personal trajectory in such a way as to live fully and honestly all his passions, without exception.

 

[1] Henri H. Mollaret and Jacqueline Brossollet, Alexandre Yersin ou le vainqueur de la peste (Alexandre Yersin or the Conqueror of the Plague), Collection “Les Inconnus de l’Histoire”, Fayard, 1985 [Author’s footnote 1].

[2] J. Brossollet died in 1999 and H. Mollaret in 2008 [Author’s footnote 2].

[3] On Alexandre Yersin the father and his entomological works, cf. Henry de Saussure, Notice sur la vie et les écrits d’Alexandre Yersin (Notice on the Life and Writings of Alexandre Yersin), Schaffhouse, 1866. The document can be consulted in its entirety on the Google Books website [Author’s footnote 3].

[4] The Messageries maritimes was a French merchant shipping company [Translator’s footnote].

[5] Staining of Gram (so-called from the name of its inventor) makes it possible to split bacteria into two groups according to the properties of their wall: those which lose their initial violet staining by treatment with alcohol + acetone (Gram-negative) and those which retain the initial staining with gentian violet (Gram-positive) [Author’s footnote 4].

[6] Actually Nha Trang was in Annam, the central part of what became Vietnam, and to the north of Cochinchina [Translator’s footnote].

[7] A resource of 933 letters (1887-1940) yielded by Mrs. Yvonne Bastardot-Yersin, Alexandre's great-niece, to Henri Mollaret, and today preserved in the Archives of the Pasteur Institute, following the donation made by Henri Mollaret in 2006. It should be noted that Mrs. Yvonne Bastardot dedicated to her great-uncle a short biography for children: Hao-Ti descended to earth, Schweizerisches Jugendschriftwerk. 1965 [Author’s footnote 5].

[8] “Little friends” is the literal but coldest possible translation of “petits amis”, which can mean “boyfriends” in the right context [Translator’s footnote].

[9] ”Guenons”, correctly meaning a particular genus of monkey but more commonly used for a female monkey (as I have translated it here), is slang for a very ugly woman or girl, which is what Yersin meant [Translator’s footnote].

[10] Recall that the notion of pedophilia erotica (heterosexual) was created by Kraft-Ebing in 1896, and that it will then be extended to homosexual situations. Cf .: J.-C. Féray, Histoire du mot pédérastie et de ses dérivés en langue française (History of the word pederasty and its derivatives in French), Quintes-Feuilles, 2004, pp. 87-92 [Author’s footnote 6].
     It should further be recalled that in coining the word pedophilia, Kraft-Ebing was clear that he meant it to refer to sexual attraction to pre-pubescent children only and that this definition is still adhered to in psychiatric literature, which refers to attraction to pubescent children (currently defined as aged 11 to 14) as “hebephilia”. It appears that not enough is known about the ages of the boys to whom Yersin was attracted or about the other characteristics of his relations with them to categorise his feelings with certainty, but one can say from what is known (and reported on this website) about the practice of boy-love in Vietnam (and indeed elsewhere) at that time that hebephilia was far more common and therefore a fairer presumption [Translator’s addendum].

[11] Testimonies preserved in the media library of the agglomeration of Troyes: manuscript no. 3 392, pp. 194-201. On Georges Hérelle, cf. the remarkable site: http://www.garae.fr/spip.php?article220 [Author’s footnote 7].

[12] The Sinologist Laurent Long assures me that he will publish in issue 9 of the magazine Inverses, to be published this summer 2009, an article on pederasty in China, around the testimony of Henri Jeoffrai. [Author’s footnote 8]. This did indeed happen [Translator’s addendum].

[13] This affair is summarised in a long note in Didier Denché and Vincent Vivré, Manifeste pour un authentique Dico-bio-homo, Quintes-feuilles, 2004, pp. 20-21 [Author’s footnote 9].

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