Threats to Mankind

Plague Doctors – History’s Hopeful Healers

The Black Death is one of history’s most devastating pandemics, which was first discovered in 1320 in the Gobi Desert. By 1346, it had spread to Europe and rampaged through the continent killing approximately 50 million people. Most of these deaths occurred in the cities, where it was spread by fleas living on the rats that thrived in the filth. The pandemic caused such a big change in Europe that when it ended, it brought the closure of the Middle Ages and the beginning of the Renaissance.

During this period, plague doctors began to operate in many of the areas that had victims. They were hired by town, and city, officials to treat those infected, and paid by the cities to take care of all their citizens. This guaranteed treatment for both the wealthy and the poor, even though they were paid extra in special circumstances. Most plague doctors were young or poorly trained, and they were also given the task of recording the number of people contaminated for public records. A cure was rarely found and treatment included bloodletting and using frogs and leeches to drain the boils, in the hope of rebalancing patients’ systems. Plague doctors also became witnesses to the wills of the many dying.

In parts of Europe these doctors were given special privileges including the ability to do autopsies, which were outlawed at the time, to help them discover how the plague killed its victims and find a cure. This did not stop many of them from fleeing when they observed the constant horrors associated with the disease, as well as from the fear of becoming infected themselves. Those that did not flee, or die, became overworked and new practitioners had little or no qualifications. One of the most notable, respected plague doctors in history was Nostradamus whose advice about the disease included: removing the infected corpses, drinking clean water, getting fresh air and drinking juice made from rose hips. He also recommended not bleeding patients, even though this was the most common practice at the time.

The doctors were often quarantined, and could not interact with the general public, due to the nature of their jobs. In the 17th century, they began wearing gear designed to protect them from contracting the plague themselves. The suit was invented by Charles de L’Orme, and first used in Paris. It consisted of a heavy, waxed fabric overcoat, and a mask that had glass eye openings and a beak-shaped nose. This was often stuffed with herbs, straw and spices which were meant to mask the scent of the ill. These included: juniper berry, lemon Balm, mint, camphor, cloves, myrrh, rose petals and others. The lack of understanding of the nature of the plague, meant that they believed the mask would be able to prevent the doctor from contracting the disease. Many of them continued to become affected and die, however, and the masks lived on as a symbol of the devastation disease can cause.

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