The Plague Doctor's Remedies: How Effective Were They in Fighting the Bubonic Plague?
Plague Doctor: The Mysterious Figure of the Black Death
The Black Death was one of the most devastating pandemics in human history, killing an estimated 75 to 200 million people in Europe and Asia in the 14th century. It was caused by a bacterium called Yersinia pestis, which was transmitted by fleas that had fed on infected rodents. The disease manifested in three forms: bubonic, pneumonic, and septicemic, each with its own symptoms and mortality rates. The most common form was bubonic, which caused painful swellings called buboes in the lymph nodes, usually in the groin, armpit, or neck. The pneumonic form affected the lungs and could be spread by coughing or sneezing. The septicemic form infected the blood and caused bleeding, shock, and gangrene.
In the face of this deadly disease, people sought help from various sources, including religious authorities, herbalists, astrologers, and physicians. Among these were a special type of physician who became known as the plague doctor. These doctors were hired by cities or towns to treat plague patients regardless of their income or social status. They wore a distinctive costume that consisted of a long coat, gloves, boots, a hat, and a mask with a beak-like nose. They also carried a rod or a cane that they used to examine or fend off patients. They practiced various remedies that were based on the medical knowledge of their time, such as bloodletting, applying poultices, or prescribing medicines. They also performed other tasks such as recording death tolls, witnessing wills, conducting autopsies, and giving advice to the dying.
The plague doctor was a mysterious figure that has fascinated historians, artists, and writers for centuries. In this article, we will explore who were the plague doctors and what did they do, how did art reflect their role and impact during the plague epidemics, and what can we learn from them and their art today.
Who were the plague doctors and what did they do?
The origin and evolution of the plague doctor costume
The first mention of a plague doctor dates back to 1619, during the plague outbreak in Paris. It was found in the written work of royal physician Charles de Lorme, who was serving King Louis XIII of France at the time. He described an outfit that included a coat covered in scented wax, breeches connected to boots, a tucked-in shirt, and a hat and gloves made of goat leather. Plague doctors also carried a rod that allowed them to poke (or fend off) victims. Their head gear was particularly unusual: Plague doctors wore spectacles, de Lorme continued, and a mask with a nose half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the [herbs] enclosed further along in the beak.
The reason behind this costume was to protect the doctor from miasma, or bad air, which was believed to be the cause of disease at that time. The beak-like nose was filled with aromatic substances such as herbs, spices, flowers, or vinegar that were supposed to purify the air before it reached the doctor's nostrils and lungs. The waxed coat and leather accessories were meant to prevent any contact with infected fluids or particles. The spectacles were to shield the eyes from any harm.
The costume became more widespread as the plague continued to ravage Europe and other parts of the world in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, not all plague doctors wore the same costume or followed the same guidelines. Some variations included different colors, shapes, or materials for the coat, hat, gloves, or boots. Some doctors also added other accessories such as a lantern, a pouch, or a sword. Some doctors even omitted the mask altogether, relying on their own immunity or faith to protect them from infection.
The plague doctor costume was not only a practical invention, but also a cultural and psychological one. It reflected the fear and uncertainty that people felt during the plague epidemics, as well as their desperate attempts to find a cure or a scapegoat. It also created a sense of authority and professionalism for the doctors who wore it, as well as a sense of distance and detachment from the patients they treated. The costume was both a shield and a barrier, a sign of hope and a symbol of doom.
The methods and tasks of the plague doctor
The plague doctor was not a specialized or trained physician, but rather a general practitioner who was hired by a city or town to treat plague patients. They were often not very experienced or qualified, and some were even criminals or quacks who took advantage of the situation to make money or escape punishment. They were paid by the government or by individual patients, depending on the contract they signed. They usually worked alone, but sometimes they collaborated with other doctors or health officials.
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The plague doctor had various methods and tasks that they performed during their service. Some of these were:
Diagnosing the disease: The plague doctor examined the patient's symptoms and signs, such as fever, chills, headache, vomiting, coughing, bleeding, or buboes. They also checked the patient's pulse, urine, blood, or sputum to determine the type and severity of the disease.
Treating the disease: The plague doctor prescribed various remedies that were based on the medical theory of their time, which was influenced by ancient Greek and Roman authors such as Hippocrates and Galen. They believed that disease was caused by an imbalance of four bodily fluids or humors: blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile. To restore this balance, they used methods such as bloodletting (cutting a vein to drain blood), applying poultices (soft moist substances) to the buboes or wounds, giving medicines (such as theriac, a mixture of herbs, honey, and opium), or advising dietary changes (such as avoiding meat, cheese, wine, or spices).
Preventing the disease: The plague doctor advised the patient and their family on how to prevent the spread of infection or avoid catching it themselves. They recommended measures such as isolating the patient in a separate room or house, burning or burying their clothes and belongings, cleaning and disinfecting their environment with vinegar or herbs, avoiding contact with animals or strangers, wearing protective clothing or amulets, praying or repenting for their sins, or fleeing to a safer place.
Performing other tasks: The plague doctor also had other duties that were related to their role as a public health official. They recorded the number and names of deaths caused by the plague in their area. They witnessed wills and testaments of dying patients. They conducted autopsies on corpses to learn more about the disease or to prove its cause. They gave advice to authorities on how to manage the epidemic situation. They also provided comfort and consolation to the dying and their relatives.
The plague doctor's methods and tasks were not always effective or ethical. Some of their treatments were harmful or useless, and some of their practices were cruel or corrupt. They sometimes caused more pain or death to their patients by bleeding them too much, applying toxic substances, or giving them false hopes. They also exploited their position to extort money, goods, or favors from their patients or their families. They sometimes fled their duty or abandoned their patients when the situation became too dangerous or hopeless. They also faced hostility and violence from the public, who blamed them for spreading or profiting from the disease.
The reputation and legacy of the plague doctor
The plague doctor was a controversial figure in the history of medicine and society. They were both respected and despised, praised and criticized, admired and feared. They were seen as heroes or villains, saviors or murderers, experts or impostors, depending on the perspective and context.
Some people appreciated the plague doctor's service and sacrifice, especially those who were poor or marginalized and had no other access to medical care. They recognized the plague doctor's courage and compassion in facing the horrors of the disease and helping those who were suffering. They also valued the plague doctor's knowledge and skills in diagnosing and treating the disease, as well as providing other assistance and guidance.
Some people despised the plague doctor's work and motives, especially those who were rich or powerful and had other options for medical care. They distrusted the p