The Bygone Times Of The Frightening Plague Doctors

Jackie Rosenhek

Jackie Rosenhek

When the rodents and insects carrying Yersinia Pestis surreptitiously hitched a ride down the Silk Road with merchants and soldiers, no one could have predicted the toll this taste for spices and the freshest in luxury assets would have on the population of Europe. After decimating tens of millions starting in China, it raced through central Asia and northern India. The bubonic plague made official landfall in Sicily in 1347 and within five years, it had spread to virtually all of Europe, Russia and the Middle East.

The first wave was the most unfortunate, eliminating some twenty-five million in Europe alone. By 1400 — a mere fifty years after the pandemic began — various epidemics and resurgence had reduced the world’s population from about four hundred fifty million to between three hundred fifty and three hundred million, maybe less. Roughly one hundred fifty million individuals succumbed to the nightmarish symptoms of the Black Plague.

First, swollen lymph nodes would signal an infection. Within days, these painful buboes would blacken and then burst, spewing forth pus and blood. Dark purplish patches all over the body were par for the course. The lucky ones would recover, while others would soon go on to suffer a high fever and agonising episodes of spasmodic pain, vomiting and retching while blood sometimes filled their lungs. For the fortunate, death would come quickly; others lingered in a state of delirium for days.

Fright, desperation and sorrow reigned supreme, from the humblest burgs to the most lively cities throughout Europe. All manner of prayers, bargains and cures were attempted but to no avail. With no antibiotics available to fight the dreaded bacteria, the plague would simply have to run its course. The plague did not entirely disappear from European soil until the nineteenth century as smaller but still deadly outbreaks occurred continuously in the decades that followed.

Once the plague’s full force was felt, it did not take long for most distinguished and well-trained doctors to recognise its wicked and venomous nature. Moreover, any physician with even a glimpse of common sense would soon realised that the “cures” being exercised were anything but, and sometimes even accelerated the death spiral. And so, most of them ran away. It was really the only sensible thing to do.

Those who took their place — the so-called plague doctor or Medico della Peste — were often scarcely more than paid hacks and second-rate physicians appointed by desperate municipalities. These eerily clad public servants would become an iconic symbol of the plague that we easily recognise to this very day… harbingers of doom in a very dark chapter in the history of human suffering.

The plague was an understatement. From its origins to its spread, to its cure, the physicians whose sole purpose was to treat this infamous killer, indeed knew very little more than those whom they were treating. They did, however, understand one thing with perfect clarity: the fact that it spread quickly and easily. Desperate times called for desperate measures.

Poultices of onion and butter, sprinklings of dried frog, arsenic, floral compounds and even a generous bloodletting or two were no match for this killing machine. The closer the patient was to dying, the more desperate the cures became. Reports exist of coating sufferers in mercury and baking them for a while in the oven, though this was likely not as unpleasant as some of the creative means by which diarrhoea was induced to relieve the patient’s system of the possessing demons. Those with no medical training were often even more creative in their attempts to cure.

Nothing worked to halt the spread, and the corpses piled up quickly and were carted away and deposited unceremoniously into mass graves. Hundreds were burned at a time while entire villages succumbed and simply ceased to exist. Coping the best they could, the living often went insane with despair, committed suicide, threw themselves into all-consuming religious devotion or indulged in Bacchanalian end-of-days-style orgies that would have made Caligula blush. Murderers and thieves were let out of jail on the condition they would agree to help with the removal and incineration of corpses.

Presumably, the principal task of the plague doctors was to aid treat and cure plague victims, and some did give it their best shot. In actual fact, however, the plague doctors responsibilities were far more actuarial than medical. Most did a lot more counting than curing, keeping track of the number of casualties and recorded the deaths in log books.

Plague doctors were seldom requested to take part in autopsies and were often called upon to testify and witness wills and other important documents for the lifeless and dying. Not surprisingly, many dishonest doctors would take advantage of bereaved families, holding out hypocritical hope for cures and charging extra fees, even though they were supposed to be paid by the government and not by their patients.

As it remains today, it seems a life of public service is occasionally at odds with the ambitions of some medically minded entrepreneurs. Whatever their intentions, whatever their failings, plague doctors were thought of as brave and highly valued; some were even kidnapped and held for ransom.

By the 1600s, the plague doctor was a terror to behold, thanks to his costume — perhaps the most potent symbol of the Black Death. The protective garment was created by the seventeenth century physician Charles de Lorme (1584-1678). Charles de Lorme had been the physician of choice for several French kings and was also a preference of the Marie de’ Medici family in Italy. In 1619 — as a carefully considered way to protect himself from having to visit powerful, plague-infested patients he could not say no to — Charles de Lorme created the iconic uniform. Its dramatic flair certainly made it seem like a great design, and the costume quickly became all the rage among plague doctors throughout Europe.

Made of a canvas outer garment coated in wax, as well as waxed leather pants, gloves, boots and hat, the costume became downright scary from the neck up. A dark leather hood and mask were held onto the face with leather bands and gathered tightly at the neck so as to not let in any noxious, plague-causing miasmas that might poison the wearer. Eyeholes were cut into the leather and fitted with glass domes.

As if this head-to-toe shroud of foreboding was not enough, from the front protruded a grotesque curved beak designed to hold the fragrant compounds believed to keep “plague air” at bay. Personal scents included camphor, floral concoctions, mint, cloves, myrrh and basically anything with a scent that was refined and strong. In some French versions of the costume, compounds were actually set to smoulder within the beak, in the hopes that the smoke would add an extra layer of protection. A wooden stick completed the look, which the plague doctor used to lift the clothing and bed sheets of infected patients to get a better look without actually making skin-to-skin contact.

Despite the fact that Charles de Lorme himself lived to the ripe old age of 96 — an impressive characteristic for a physician living in the plague years — his outstanding contribution to medicine probably did very scarce to quell the actual spread of the disease. The beak doctors, as they came to be known, dropped like flies or pretty much lived under constant quarantine, wandering the countryside and city streets like pariahs, until of course, desperate families needed them.

As a tribute to your fallen brothers from eras gone, why not encourage your children to dress up as something slightly different for Halloween this year? Explain some of the history behind these death doctors, and they are sure to find the Medico della Peste every bit as terrifying as any vampire, witch, ghost or ghoul…

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