Plague Doctors

Coming to a village near you…

Coming to a village near you…


People in the Middle Ages called it “the blue sickness or “the great mortality,” but many people today refer to it as “the black death.” (This has nothing to do with Black Friday, a shopping tradition that was named by Philadelphia police because of the mayhem that accompanied the shoppers.)

Most scientists think that the deaths were caused by the bubonic plague. Arriving in Europe from China, the Black Death killed off perhaps half of the medieval population in Europe.

Imagine the terror of knowing the plague was coming to your village! A person would receive a letter from someone in infected areas to the south or east, and panic. Pilgrims who returned from trips reported seeing whole families drop dead within hours. Whole villages were wiped out. People in its path would not know what to do! They just knew they were next.

Most of the doctors just ran away. People tried everything. They repented it droves and found creative ways of doing penance. Some would walk through the streets whipping themselves (flagellation). Others walked around carrying bunches of sweet smelling flowers. Still others changed their lifestyles and refused spices which came from the East. But nothing worked. The plague spread and killed.

Artistic themes such as the dance macabre showed up in churches and other sites.

In later outbreaks, during the 16th century, plague doctors sprang up. The doctor donned a mask with a long beak, and filled it with scented material such as rose hips and straw. He avoided breathing any of that “bad air” emanating from decaying matter that was believed to spread the plague. He also wore a long coat made of goat’s leather and covered with wax to protect him from the “miasma.” On his head he wore a traditional wide rimmed physician’s hat, to let people know he was a doctor. The outfit looks like it’s right out of a fantasy novel!

People broke out with large blue buboes filled with a vile smelling pus. The plague doctor would lance the buboes or put leaches on them. When the patient died in spite of such treatment, it was the plague doctor’s duty to keep records, and perform an autopsy.

Nostradamus was a plague doctor whose predictions became so popular that people are still reading them. Nostradamus told his patients to drink boiled water, sleep on clean sheets, and leave the area of infection. He invented the “rose pill” from rose hips, which we now know contained high levels of vitamin C.

Plague can be bubonic, septicemic, or pneumonic. Bubonic is spread by fleas from rats, Septicemic is spread through contact with the blood of those infected, and pneumonic is spread through the air. Bubonic victims suffered agony for days before coughing up blood and dying. Pneumotic victims died quickly, sometimes after just a few hours of contracting the disease.

Some scientists believed that the plague of Athens in 430 B.C. was an early outbreak of Bubonic Plague, but Typhoid and Ebola are also possibilities. Thucydides described the symptoms as including an unquenchable thirst, a desire to be naked, and a preference to be submerged in cold water. The great statesman, Pericles, died during this outbreak.