A plague doctor was a medical physician who treated victims of the bubonic plague. In times of epidemics, such physicians were specifically hired by towns where the plague had taken hold. Since the city was paying their salary, they treated everyone: both the wealthy and the poor. However, some of the plague doctors were known to charge patients and their families additional fees for special treatments or false cures. Typically they were not professionally trained nor experienced physicians or surgeons; rather they were often either second-rate doctors unable to otherwise run a successful medical practice or young physicians seeking to establish themselves in the industry. These doctors rarely cured their patients; rather, they served to record a count of the number of people contaminated for demographic purposes.
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 France and the Netherlands, plague doctors often lacked medical training and were referred to as “empirics”. In one case, a plague doctor had been a fruit salesman before his employment as a physician.
In the 17th, 18th, and 19th 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. The design of these clothes has been attributed to Charles de Lorme, the chief physician to Louis XIII.
The first European epidemic of the bubonic plague dates back to the mid 11th century and is called the Plague of Justinian. The largest plague epidemic was the Black Death in Europe in the 14th century. In times, the large loss of people (due to the bubonic plague) in a town created an economic disaster. Community plague doctors were quite valuable and were given special privileges; for example, plague doctors were freely allowed to perform autopsies, which were otherwise generally forbidden in Medieval Europe, to research a cure for the plague.
In some cases, plague doctors were so valuable that when Barcelona dispatched two to Tortosa in 1650, outlaws captured them en route and demanded a ransom. The city of Barcelona paid for their release. The city of Orvieto hired Matteo fu Angelo in 1348 for four times the normal rate of a doctor of 50-florin per year. Pope Clement VI hired several extra plague doctors during the Black Death plague. They were to attend to the sick people of Avignon. Of 18 doctors in Venice, only one was left by 1348: five had died of the plague, and 12 were missing and may have fled.
Some plague doctors wore a special costume. The garments were invented by Charles de L’Orme in 1630 and were first used in Naples, but later spread to be used throughout Europe. The protective suit consisted of a light, waxed fabric overcoat, a mask with glass eye openings and a beak shaped nose, typically stuffed with herbs, straw, and spices. Plague doctors would also commonly carry a cane to examine and direct patients without the need to make direct contact with the patient.
The scented materials included juniper berry, ambergris, roses (Rosa), mint (Mentha spicata L.) leaves, camphor, cloves, laudanum, myrrh, and storax. Due to the primitive understanding of disease at the time, it was believed this suit would sufficiently protect the doctor from miasma while tending to patients.
Their principal task, besides taking care of people with the plague, was to record in public records the deaths due to the plague.
In certain European cities like Florence and Perugia, plague doctors were requested to do autopsies to help determine the cause of death and how the plague played a role. Plague doctors became witnesses to numerous wills during times of plague epidemics. Plague doctors also gave advice to their patients about their conduct before death. This advice varied depending on the patient, and after the Middle Ages, the nature of the relationship between doctor and patient was governed by an increasingly complex ethical code.
Plague doctors practiced bloodletting and other remedies such as putting frogs or leeches 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.
Notable Renaissance Plague Doctors
A famous plague doctor who gave medical advice about preventive measures which could be used 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. In Traité des fardemens it shows in Part A Chapter VIII that Nostradamus also recommended not to bleed the patient.
The Italian city of Pavia, in 1479, contracted Giovanni de Ventura as a community plague doctor. The Irish physician, Niall Ó Glacáin (c.1563?–1653) earned deep respect in Spain, France and Italy for his bravery in treating numerous people with the plague. The French anatomist Ambroise Paré and Swiss iatrochemist Paracelsus were also famous Renaissance plague doctors.
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