This first appeared in issue #2 of 'History Notes', compiled by the late Phillip Bruce. It is reproduced here on Gwulo by kind permission of Mr Bruce's family.

From the Hong Kong News, the English-language newspaper published by the Japanese occupation forces, of May 30, 1942:

"Not many are aware that the plague bacillus was first discovered in Hong Kong by a Nipponese scientist, Dr Kitasato, in 1894. At that time Hong Kong had its first outbreak of an illness that has been called 'the black plague,' with a very high percentage of mortality. Medical men came here from other parts of the world, and it was Dr Kitasato's discovery of the bacillus which became the foundation of plague prevention work.

"My recollection is that Dr Kitasato, in addition to obtaining a foremost place among medical men by his researches, also did great work in Manchuria. He studied with Koch in Berlin (not to be confused with the Dr Koch who was in government service and subsequently in private practice in Hongkong).

"There was another Nipponese scientist who came to Hong Kong in those days, in the service of humanity. His name I forget, but he died from the disease that he was investigating, and I think there is a tablet to his memory in one of the local cemeteries.

"The year 1894 is still remembered by old residents of Hong Kong as the first of a considerable number of annual visitations. One result was that the British government resumed hundreds of closely congested houses at Tai Ping Shan, below Po Hing Fong. "A park was laid out on the site and named 'Blake Garden' after the governor of the time. It is respectfully suggested that local tribute be paid to Dr Kitasato and his colleague, either by renaming the garden after them, or by erecting a memorial therein.

"On 14th January, 1897, the Daily Chronicle of London said: "The bacillus pestis discovered by Dr Kitasato," is "now universally recognised as the essential cause of the plague. It belongs to the group of parasite or disease producing bacteria which find home in the bodies of certain animals... They multiply by fission, and each divided portion is a new plant; reproduction thus proceeds in a rapid geometrical progression. The greatest enemy of the bacillus is sunlight.'

"Although Hong Kong has been practically immune from bubonic plague for some time, the present medical administration is sparing no effort towards eradication of the 'animals' which might harbour bacteria."


Dear David,

your topic happens to be in my topic "Dr. Erich Paulun". I tried some time ago to find Paulun's address in Hong Kong, "Villa sans souci, Robinson Road".

There are extensive documents on your topic in Berlin. Dr Kitasato went to Berlin in 1885, where he worked together with Emil von Behring in Prof. Robert Koch's laboratory. There, Dr. Kitasato the causative agents of tetanus and diphtheria. In 1889 he succeeded Clostridium tetani, to breed in a pure culture. Together with Emil von Behring he proved in 1890 the effect of antitoxins against tetanus and diphtheria. In 1892 Kitasato returned to Japan.

In 1894 Kitasato researched simultaneously with Alexandre Yersin in Hong Kong for the causative agent of the plague epidemic that had broken out there. However, the description he published of the pathogen later turned out to be a mistake, probably due to contamination of bacterial cultures by pneumococci. For some time Kitasato was considered to be the discoverer of the bubonic plague pathogene, but today after Yersin "Yersinia pestis" is called.

Yersin also proved experimentally that the pest virus he identified was also responsible for the simultaneous death of rats in Hong Kong. Thus, for the complete elucidation of the essential links in the chain of infection of this zoonosis, the only thing missing was the finding that plague epidemics "skipped" from the animal to the human through the bite of the rat flea. This was to be discovered three years later by Masanori Ogata (Orgata was before Kitasato in Berlin and had advised him to go there too) and Paul-Louis Simond in Bombay. The pathogen, which Kitasato isolated in Hong Kong and described as causing the plague, later proved to be a fortuitous concomitant of the disease, but Kitasato was long considered to be (co-) discoverer of the bubonic plague pathogene. In 1970, the bacterium received its present name, in memory of Yersin's merits.

In Hong Kong there must be a memorial of Yersin, see photo at:

This Dr Koch who was in government service in HK is grandson of Godfried Koch who came in 1755 from Altruppin near Berlin to India ... later to Ceylon. Godfried Koch was probably one of the first European doctors in the Far East.

best regards


Interesting that the original report was published in a wartime Japanese newspaper in Hong Kong - no surprise that the Japanese were exclusively credited with isolating the plague bacilli .

Here is an interesting report on the discovery of the plague bacillius in HK:

Early in 1894 bubonic plague broke out in Canton and Hong Kong, the start of the third great plague pandemic. Two bacteriologists immediately began working independently from one another to isolate and culture the causative organism of the plague; Shibasaburo Kitasato, a previous pupil of Robert Koch, and Alexandre Yersin, from the Pasteur Institute.10, 11, 12

On June 12 a Japanese team of researchers led jointly by Shibasaburo Kitasato and Aoyama Tanemichi arrived in Hong Kong to try to identify the organism responsible for the plague. Kitasato was a renowned Japanese bacteriologist who worked with Emil von Behring and Robert Koch in Berlin where they developed antitoxins for tetanus and diphtheria.11, 12 James Lowson, the British physician in charge of the Hong Kong plague emergency, set up Kitasato’s team with a well furnished laboratory in Kennedy Town Hospital. Kitasato found bacilli in the bubo pus, blood and organs of a plague victim who had died. He cultured the bacillus on broth culture and inoculated mice and other animals who died with the same bacilli in their blood.13 On June 14 Kitasato informed Lowson that he had found the likely plague bacteria and Lowson immediately cabled The Lancet who published Kitasato’s findings in an editorial the next week, and his full research report in August, with great admiration from the Hong Kong and Japanese governments.11

Alexandre Yersin, a Franco-Swiss physician, was the assistant of Emile Roux, director of the Pasteur Institute, a fellow colleague of Pasteur, and a member of the Pasteur Institute, a Pastorien. He had also studied under Robert Koch in Germany and in 1888 was awarded the Paris Medical Faculty bronze medal for his work on animal tuberculosis and the diphtheria exotoxin. In 1890 Yersin decided to leave his work at the Pasteur Institute to go to French Vietnam, earning his passage on the way as a ship’s physician for the Messageries Maritimes company.14 He arrived in Saigon and joined the French colonial health service as a missionary doctor. After plague had broken out in Hong Kong in 1894 he was asked by the Pasteur Institute to leave Vietnam and go to Hong Kong to try to isolate the plague organism, taking with him a microscope and an incubator as his only equipment. Yersin arrived in Hong Kong in June 1984 three days after Kitasato, Kitasato was already at work, but with a sophisticated laboratory and a staff of twenty or so.10, 11, 12, 15

Yersin was not able to either obtain hospital laboratory facilities or to be able to work alongside Kitasato, and instead set up a rudimentary laboratory in a hut near the Hong Kong Hospital and had to make do with working on hospital patient corpses. A week into his stay, one of the mice he had inoculated with pus taken from a bubo on a corpse, died. Its spleen contained “very small, stocky, round tipped bacilli which could be stained only with difficulty”. In the following week he successfully obtained pure cultures of the bacillus on medium. He also demonstrated for the first time that the same bacillus was present in the rat as well as in the human disease, indicating its possible means of transmission.11, 12, 14, 15

During June 1984 both Kitasato and Yersin announced isolation and culture of the plague bacillus. Although Kitasato was initially credited with the discovery for some years, it is now considered Yersin’s description of the bacillus to have been the more accurate. Yersin’s experiments satisfied Koch’s postulates for plague infection, his descriptions of the bacillus were more accurate and consistent than Kitasato’s, and he more accurately described the aniline dye and non-Gram staining of the bacillus. In addition, Kitasato’s cultures were probably contaminated by a gram-positive pneumococcus that was the cause of a secondary septicaemia in plague patients.10, 11, 13, 16 Yersin published his report in the Annales de l’Institut Pasteur with a paper titled La peste bubonique á Hong Kong and the bacillus was named Bacterium pestis. A few months after his return to France, Yersin was awarded the Légion d’honneur by Delcasse, the French Minister of Colonies.14, 15

Source: Journal of Military and Veterans' Health


ViIla Sans Souci was located here

There is a memorial to Yersin in the gardens of the Hong Kong Bacteriological Institute, now the Museum of Medical Science on Caine Road. You can just see it in Google Streetview below, just infront of the concrete retaining wall at the corner of the building. Zoom in for better detail.


Dear David, dear Herostratur,

first of all, I am fascinated by how many excellent brains there are in this forum. Then I see the environment in which this Dr. Erich Paulun lived. From 1882 Paulun was a student of Robert Koch, who was also his examiner at the state examination. In January 1888 Paulun went to the Navy and came to China by chance in April 1891, to meet Yangtse riots. At the end of June 1893, he signeg off and stayed in China until his death.
I was interested in the contradiction in Paulun's personality. A Prussian officer establishes a hospital for the poor Chinese in Shanghai around 1900, while at the same time his comrades and allies are at war with China (Yihetuan) in the north. There has been a transformation of this personality... which must have taken place in Hong Kong. It is only after the time in Hong Kong that Paulun becomes this humane doctor as he is remembered. Before, with all due respect, he was a roughneck.     
Paulun's parents died of pulmonary tuberculosis when he was two years old. At the age of six, he said first time that he wanted to become a doctor. There is a letter from his school days in which he formulates his career aspirations very clearly. It is logical that he sought proximity to Robert Koch. Later he also had contact with him from China. For example, Paulun has experimented with Chinese herbal medicine, which Robert Koch mentions in his yearbooks. In the BMA, Paulun commented on the subject of plague.
There was an extensive correspondence on these contacts between doctors in China, Japan and Berlin. These letters, a stack of 6 km of paper, rest in the basement of the Humboldt University in Berlin. Not archived! Who has one or two years or more to work there?     
Then I would like to thank you very much for informing me about the location of Villa Sans Souci. 'Such a house is not very interesting', but there was also a married couple living in it, whose son was given the first name Erich in 1900. The parents obviously appreciated Paulun very much. From 1933 to 1945, this Erich had a leading role in the NSDAP, which murdered or had executed numerous members of the Paulun family. A special chapter in German history.
Paulun had a sister whose descendants had been actively involved in the history of the KPD since the early 1920s, in the resistance against the NSDAP, in the construction of the GDR, in the history of the GDR until 1989 in leading positions.  
The topic "The History of Plague" obviously touches many lifelines or CVs from different nations.  
I am pleased to have met you.