The Black Death was the most devastating and deadly bubonic plague epidemic in human history, killing between 40 and 50 million people. It wiped out 25 million Europeans, more than a third of the population in a few years.
Out of desperation, cities hired a new type of doctor, called a "plague doctor." These persons were either second-rate doctors, young doctors with limited experience, or had no certified medical training. The main job of the plague doctor was to venture into the affected areas to count the number of deaths.
Bubonic plague was discovered in 1320 in the Gobi Desert. In 1331, the plague reached China, 1338 Russia, 1342 India, and 1346 Europe.
1. No Plague Mask until the 17th century
Although the mask has become an iconic symbol of the Black Death, there is no evidence that doctors wore it during the 14th-century epidemic. Medical historians have attributed the invention of the "beak doctor" costume to a French physician named Charles de Lorme in 1619. He designed the bird mask to be worn with an oversized wax coat as a form of protection from head to toe, modeled after a soldier's armor.
2. Why a mask in the shape of a beak?
Plague doctors wore a mask with a beak similar to a crow to protect them from infection, which they believed was airborne. They thought miasmas were spreading the disease, a noxious form of "bad air." The foul air was fought with dried flowers, herbs, and spices (mint, camphor, cloves...) crammed into the mouthpiece of the mask. These herbs were lightly ignited before being put into the mask so that the smoke could further protect the doctor.
Glass lenses covered the eyes to keep the patient's gaze away in case the disease spread through eye contact.
3. Plague Uniform
Doctors did not immediately understand how the plague had spread. However, by the 17th century, they had subscribed to the miasma theory, which was the idea that contagion was spread by foul-smelling air. Previously, plague doctors wore various protective garments. However, it was not until 1619 that a "uniform" was invented by Charles de l'Orme, the chief physician of Louis XIII.
Because they believed that foul-smelling fumes could seep into the fibers of their clothing and transmit disease, de l'Orme designed a uniform consisting of a waxed leather coat, gloves, leggings, and boots to deflect the miasma from head to toe. The suit was then coated with animal fat to repel body fluids. They also donned a black hat to indicate that they were medics.
4. A plague suit, but not very effective
The suit was defective, as there were air holes in the nozzle. As a result, many doctors contracted the plague and died. Although de l'Orme lived to 96 years old, most other doctors had a very short life expectancy (even with the suit). In addition, those who were not affected often lived in quarantine. It was a lonely and thankless existence for plague doctors.
5. Plague Doctor: The Messenger of Death
Doctors also carried a long wooden stick that they used to communicate with and examine their patients. In addition, many plague doctors used their stick to defend themselves against infected and desperate citizens who approached them and begged them to stop their excruciating pain.
The sick believed that the plague was a punishment sent by God. So they asked the doctor to whip them in repentance. As soon as the "beak doctors" appeared, they became synonymous with suffering and tragedy. Ordinary people of the time often perceived them as messengers of death and God's punishment.
The ravages of the Black Death across Europe over several centuries left a lasting legacy of horror and misery.
6. Plague doctors? Not really.
The primary responsibilities of a plague doctor, or Medico della Peste, were not to cure or treat patients. Their duties were more administrative than medicinal, as they kept track of victims or witnessed the wills of the dying.
7. Strange methods to "slow down" the plague
Plague Doctors were allowed to perform autopsies since no one could adequately understand well the disease. However, these autopsies were more morbid than helpful. Plague doctors therefore resorted to more dubious and dangerous treatments. The treatments ranged from the bizarre to the horrific.
For example, they practiced covering buboes (cysts on the neck and armpits, filled with egg-sized pus) with human feces...
The most painful method is surely mercury poured over the victim before placing them in an oven. Also, to treat the sicks, doctors were practicing bloodletting. For this, they used leeches and toads every day!
Not surprisingly, these attempts often hastened death and the spread of infection by opening up the wounds that became infected.
Medical practices have been of dubious effectiveness for many centuries. If you think these practices are shocking, the medical instruments of the Victorian era are probably just as shocking.
8. Nostradamus was a famous Plague Doctor
In the Middle Ages, doctors tried to expel the plague from the body by letting blood flow or inducing vomiting, which further weakened the patients. Many people fled the plague-ravaged areas, which accelerated the spread of the epidemic. It was not until the mid-15th century after the epidemic had reached its peak, that the first quarantine systems were established on the Venetian island Lazzaretto Nuovo. There, travelers were placed under observation for 40 days before being allowed to continue their journey.
The most famous plague doctor was Nostradamus, who advised removing infected corpses, getting fresh air, drinking clean water, and not bleeding the patient. Nostradamus was a reference for slowing down the Black Death pandemic.
9. Plague in 1924... and 2017?
Today, we know that the bubonic plagues and subsequent plagues, such as pneumonia, were caused by the bacterium Yersinia Pestis which rats, abundant in urban environments, carried. The last outbreak of urban plague in the United States occurred in Los Angeles in 1924.
Nowadays, up to 3,000 people contract plague each year, but antibiotics effectively treat the disease. In Madagascar, a frightening plague outbreak made headlines in 2017 (over 200 deaths). The infection returns every year from August to April.
10. Beliefs VS reality about the plague (and its contagion)
For a long time, no one knew how the plague was transmitted. Suggested causes included unfavorable conjunction of Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn, or contaminated water. People assumed that "bad winds" and stale air, called "miasma," spread the disease. For this reason, only north-facing windows were considered safe for ventilation. Essential oils and other aromatic essences were used to repel the poisonous air of the plague.
Although Roman and Venetian physicians wore similar outfits since the 14th century, medical scientists had no idea that microscopic bacteria spread the disease. Instead, they promoted the "miasma theory," The disease was spread by foul odors that emanated from garbage, rotting flesh, and various other substances perceived as impure.
These foul odors were thought to be capable of polluting the air and infecting humans and animals with various deadly diseases. The miasma theory remained the main origin of disease theory for many infections, including cholera and malaria, until the second half of the 19th century, when it was finally disproved by the "germ theory," also known as the "microbial theory."
The actual cause of the plague was first discovered in 1894 by physician and bacteriologist Alexandre Yersin. The pathogen, Yersinia Pestis, now bears his name. It was carried by rats and transmitted to humans by fleas and via exposure to biological fluids from an infected dead animal.