A plague doctor was a special medical physician who saw those who had the plague. They were specifically hired by towns that had many plague victims in times of plague epidemics. They were not normally professionally trained experienced physicians or surgeons. Plague doctors by their covenant treated plague patients and were known as municipal or “community plague doctors”, whereas “general practitioners” were separate doctors and both might be in the same European city or town at the same time.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, some doctors wore a beak-like mask which was filled with aromatic items. The masks were designed to protect them from putrid air, which (according to the miasmatic theory of disease) was seen as the cause of infection. Being a plague doctor was unpleasant, dangerous and difficult. Their chances of survival in times of a plague epidemic were slim.
Pope Clement VI hired several extra plague doctors during the Black Death plague. They were to attend to the sick people of Avignon. Of eighteen doctors in Venice, only one was left by 1348: five had died of the plague, and twelve were missing and may have fled. The first epidemic of bubonic plague dates back to the mid 500s, known as the Plague of Justinian. The largest epidemic was the Black Death of Europe in the fourteenth century. In medieval times the large loss of people due to the bubonic plague in a town created an economic disaster.
Some plague doctors wore a special costume, although graphic sources show that plague doctors wore a variety of garments. The garments were invented by Charles de L’Orme in 1619; they were first used in Paris, but later spread to be used throughout Europe. The protective suit consisted of a heavy fabric overcoat that was waxed, a mask of glassed eye openings and a cone shaped like a beak to hold scented substances and straw.
Plague doctors practiced bloodletting and other remedies such as putting frogs on the buboes to “rebalance the humors” as a normal routine. Plague doctors could not generally interact with the general public because of the nature of their business and the possibility of spreading the disease; they could also be subject to quarantine.
Ancient Greek painting in a vase, showing a physician (iatros) bleeding a patient.
NOTABLE MEDIEVAL PLAGUE DOCTORS
A famous plague doctor who gave medical advice about preventive measures which could be taken against the plague was Nostradamus. Nostradamus’ advice was the removal of infected corpses, getting fresh air, drinking clean water, and drinking a juice preparation of “rose hips”.