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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 plague doctors were known to charge patients and their families additional fees for special treatments and/or false cures. Typically they were not professionally trained nor experienced physicians or surgeons, but rather they were often either second-rate doctors unable to otherwise run a successful medical practice or young physicians seeking to establish themselves. 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 costumes has been attributed to Charles de Lorme, the chief physician to Louis XIII.
Some plague doctors wore a special costume. The garments were invented by Charles de L'Orme in 1620 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, rose petals, 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.
Plague doctors served as public servants during times of epidemics starting with the Black Death of Europe in the fourteenth century. 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.
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.