Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Plague Doctor; worse than the plague?

Over the last several posts, we have been discussing the so-called benefits of the plague upon Europe. As uncaring as this last statement may sound, devastating occurrences such as the Black Death, can result in changes, which can become instrumental in moving society along a better path.

As terrifying and simplistic as this may sound, one benefit of the plague was it killed off many doctors. Physicians treated those with the plague, and as a result they too succumbed to the disease. This meant their knowledge of healing was also lost; this may not have been a bad thing.

As I pointed out in the earlier blog, science and medicine were based on rumors and superstitions. It was not unheard for a doctor to use vomit on a patient or to blood-let them to death. Bloodletting was based on that the disease was inside the body, so if you cut the person, you were allowing the disease to leave.  Medicine was more tradition than science, whatever a doctor learned (even if it was wrong), that erroneous information was then passed down to the next generation.

Numerous so-called medicines were tried to heal the victims of the plague.  One of the most popular was mercury; this had been used to treat venereal diseases previously.  This is one of many examples where the cure might have been worse than the disease.

We know the dangers of mercury poisoning today, but in pervious times, not only where they were unaware of the dangers, they thought it was beneficial. If you were diagnosed with a venereal disease, you might be prescribed to take the mercury, possibly for the rest of your life.  This rose to the saying, “A night with Venus, a lifetime with Mercury”.

Another interesting fact about mercury, it was an ingredient for the production of felt. Felt was used for the hats which were commonly worn in the 18th and 19 century.  The assumption of this mercury in the skin by the people, who worked with these hats, eventually caused them to develop mercury poisoning. Several of the symptoms of this poisoning are a loss of memory, and erratic behavior, and so we come to the creation of another saying: “Mad as a hatter”.

After the removal of these doctors, people sought out others to heal them.  Many ‘wise folk” took their knowledge of herbs and began treating others.  This herbal medicine was, in fact, much better than what medicine was providing at the time. These wise folk helped to fix a broken medical system.

Furthermore, those who replaced the doctors began questioning their methods. These new physicians sought out science to treat others, not just handed down remedies from a previous generation of doctors. These doctors help create what would be known as the renaissance or rebirth of knowledge.

There were many who claimed to be Plague Doctors. Many of these doctors claimed they could cure the disease, although most had little success.

We know now the Black Death was spread by parasites living on rodents (The connection that fleas carried the plague was not discovered until 1898 by Paul-Louis Simond).  However, during the medieval period, it was thought it was carried on the wind. You must understand, they did not think it was a germ spreading through the air.  They believed the air itself was bad. This bad air was called “night air” and is based on the Miasma theory; it is founded that air from rotting matter becomes toxic and that breathing this air is what caused you to get sick.

To prevent breathing this “bad air” the plague doctor costume was created. This consisted of an outer garment that covered them from the head to below the ankles. They also carried a long stick, to poke their patients during the examination without being forced to touch them. They wore a large brimmed hat which designated them as a plague doctor.

The most notable part of the plague doctor’s costume was the mask; this was shaped like a bird’s beak. Today, many people are under the wrong impression that the doctor thought this beak allowed him to sniff out the decease, in fact, the opposite was true; the doctor filled the beak with sweet-smelling flowers. These “nice” aromas were to counter the bad air of the plague.

In terms of physicians who properly treated the plague, the most notable was Michel de Nostredame, aka Nostradamus.  He differed from others that he recommended consuming clean water, getting fresh air and removing the body from the house and placing it into a hospital. He also was advocated burning the clothes and bedding of infected patients.

Now we can see how negative factors, such as the plague, can benefit society. Remember, as I stated in an earlier post, history is not one event after another, it is a molding of all events. Some negative events can lead to a positive conclusion.

I hope you have enjoyed our quick visit to the days of the plague.  Next time, we will talk about another horrible event, WAR, and see how the crusades also benefited society and the misconceptions we have of it.

W.A. Rusho is a martial artists, historian and professional wrestler.  He is the author of the fantasy novel “Legend of the Mystic Knights.”  You can find out more about him by visiting his website..


  1. Oh my, really puts whole new perspective on all those "good old days" sayings doesn't it? If I had my doctor's email address I'd forward this to him with a huge thank you note! Thanks for the fascinating journey.

  2. William, I love the trivia you dig up like the 'mad as a hatter' thing. I have read some books about medical treatments in the past - not necessarily the Plague but even early 20th century when doctors were still using the bleeding and leech remedies (I know the leech one would have killed - not cured - me for sure)

  3. Wow, I didn't know they used Mercury for the plague. It's amazing how much we have learned over the years. In a hundred years, we will probably know more about what we are eating now and what we should have avoided. Thanks for sharing.

  4. What awful practices! So many seemed deluded and ran away with their ideologies.

  5. The evolution of medicine is so fascinating. Thank you for sharing. And as silly as it seems in our times to think that the wind spreads a disease, I can understand how people came to that conclusion. The development of modern medicine must have been a lot of trial and error until people stumbled upon truths through their research. We have to be very thankful to those before us for giving us answers and knowledge that we take for granted today. This makes me ponder what medicine will be like a couple hundred years from now.

  6. Puts things into perspecive doesn't it. What's even more interesting is to look at how today's doctors act if plague bacteria was used as chemical warfare? Am not so sure they would handle it right away. Most likely it would take some time before they understood what had to be done.

  7. Another great list of trivia facts here. I especially found the notion of the plague doctor's costume interesting, plus it was easy to form a mental image based on your description.

  8. Two quick comments:
    (1) The Blog+Plague+Doctor+BS.jpg image looks kind of like a duck. Seems like there was quite a bit of 'quackery' going on back then, eh?
    (2) Given the incestuous relationship between doctors and drug companies today, this post makes me wonder if there was any collusion between doctors and mercury mine owners during the medieval era. What do you think, folks?

  9. Wow. The plague was serious business. I'm glad medicine has gotten much better.

  10. Not sure "enjoy" is the right word for how much I like reading these posts, William, but what the heck, I'll use it. It's interesting that the herbalists moved in, made improvements and then somehow we let that go in favor of eight zillion types of pills to fix us.

    Love this paragraph:

    Now we can see how negative factors, such as the plague, can benefit society. Remember, as I stated in an earlier post, history is not one event after another, it is a molding of all events. Some negative events can lead to a positive conclusion.

  11. The little bits of history you put together are very interesting. I didn't know they used mercury to treat the plague. It's also interesting to read about people like Nostradamus who are ahead of their time in treatment. I recently read a book about the building of the Panama Canal. Malaria and yellow fever caused a lot of deaths during the time the French worked on a canal. At the time, a few doctors/scientists were coming out with theories that the diseases were spread by mosquitoes but many did not believe that. I wonder which of our current medical practices will be considered barbaric a few hundred years from now.