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"Burning a plague-infected village in Indochina"



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"In 1897, it was often to this radical measure, the burning of an entire village, that the natives had to resort to destroy the rats, the mice and all the other animals which threatened to propagate throughout the country the germs of the epidemic" "Photograph communicated by Dr Roux". The caption in the photograph is miselading on several accounts. First, plague first arrived in Indochina in 1898. Second, incineration was a measure imposed by Alexandre Yersin, and not self-deployed by the Vietnamese. Third, Yersin at the time disregarded the connection of plague to rats, maintaining instead that the disease in Nha Trang was possibly carried by ants. In all probability this is one of the photographs sent by Alexandre Yersin to Emile Roux during the plague outbreak of 1898 in Nha Trang, in the course of which Yersin's lab was accused of being the source of the epidemic.

The third pandemic of plague (in its bubonic and pneumonic clinical forms) struck the globe between 1894 and 1959. As Yersinia pestis spread from country to country and from continent to continent, it left behind it not only a trail of death and devastation, but also a vast visual archive. It was the first time that plague would reach and establish itself in all inhabited continents. But it was also the first time that any epidemic would be photographed. As plague spread from harbour to harbour, and amongst cities, towns and villages, so did photographs of the pandemic through reproductions in the daily and illustrated press. Rather than forming a homogeneous or linear visual narrative, these photographic documents provided diverse perspectives on the pandemic, which, more often than not, were not simply different from region to region, but in fact conflicting within any single locus of infection. Moreover this photographic production came to establish a new field of vision, what we may call “epidemic photography” which continues to inform the way in which we see, depict and imagine epidemics and their social, economic, and political impact in the age of Global Health.

Plague arrived in the French colony of Indochina in 1898, striking the coastal town of Nha Trang where Alexandre Yersin was head of the local Institut Pasteur. Yersin's lab came under suspicion as the source of the outbreak at the time. Later, plague appeared in many areas of the colony (notably Hanoi).


Plague, Incineration, House, Indochina

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Institut Pasteur

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The database “Photographs of the Third Plague Pandemic” was funded by an European Research Council Starting Grant (under the European Union's Seventh Framework Programme/ERC grant agreement no 336564) for the project Visual Representations of the Third Plague Pandemic, led by Dr Christos Lynteris (PI) at the Centre for Research in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (CRASSH) of the University of Cambridge (2018-2019). The project would like to thank its postdoctoral researchers, Drs Lukas Engelmann, Nicholas H. A. Evans, Maurits Meerwijk, Branwyn Poleykett and Abhjit Sarkar, and its administrators Mss Teresa Abaurrea, Emma Hacking and Samantha Peel for their contribution to this database.