Plague doctor

Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel (i.e., Dr. Beak), a plague doctor in seventeenth-century Rome, circa 1656

A plague doctor was a medical physician who treated victims of the plague.[1] They were specifically hired by towns that had many plague victims in times of epidemics. Since the city was paying their salary, they treated everyone: both the wealthy and the poor.[2] However, some plague doctors were known for charging patients and their families extra for special treatments and/or false cures.[3] They were not normally professionally trained experienced physicians or surgeons, and often were second-rate doctors unable to otherwise run a successful medical business or young physicians trying to establish themselves.[1] These doctors rarely cured their patients; rather, they got 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.[1][4][5][6] 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.[7]

In the seventeenth and eighteenth 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.


The first epidemic of the Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, dates back to the mid 6th century and is called the Plague of Justinian.[8] The largest number of people affected by the epidemic were the Black Death victims of Europe in the 14th century. In medieval times, the large loss of people (due to the bubonic plague) in a town created an economic disaster. Community plague doctors were quite valuable and were given special privileges; for example, plague doctors were freely allowed to perform autopsies, which were otherwise generally forbidden in Medieval Europe, to research a cure for the plague.

In some cases, plague doctors were so valuable that when Barcelona dispatched two to Tortosa in 1650, outlaws captured them en route and demanded a ransom. The city of Barcelona paid for their release.[5] The city of Orvieto hired Matteo fu Angelo in 1348 for 4 times the normal rate of a doctor of 50-florin per year.[5] Pope Clement VI hired several extra plague doctors during the Black Death plague. They were to attend to the sick people of Avignon. Of eighteen doctors in Venice, only one was left by 1348: five had died of the plague, and twelve were missing and may have fled.[9]


Main article: Plague doctor costume

Some plague doctors wore a special costume. The garments were invented by Charles de L'Orme in 1619; they were first used in Paris, but later spread to be used throughout Europe.[10] The protective suit consisted of a heavy, 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.[11]

The scented materials included juniper berry, ambergris, lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), mint (Mentha spicata L.) leaves, camphor, cloves, laudanum, myrrh, rose petals, and storax.[7] This was thought to protect the doctor from miasma.[12] Due to the primitive understanding of disease at time, it was believed this suit would sufficiently protect the doctor from this "miasma" while tending to patients.

Public servants

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 plague victims, was to record in public records the deaths due to the plague.[7]

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.[13] Plague doctors became witnesses to numerous wills during times of plague epidemics.[14] Plague doctors also gave advice to their patients about their conduct before death.[15] 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.[16]


Plague doctors practiced bloodletting and other remedies such as putting frogs or leeches on the buboes to "rebalance the humors" as a normal routine.[17] Plague doctors could not generally interact with the general public because of the nature of their business and the possibility of spreading the disease; they could also be subject to quarantine.[18]

Notable medieval plague doctors

A famous plague doctor who gave medical advice about preventive measures which could be used against the plague was Nostradamus.[19][20] Nostradamus' advice was the removal of infected corpses, getting fresh air, drinking clean water, and drinking a juice preparation of rose hips.[21][22] In Traité des fardemens it shows in Part A Chapter VIII that Nostradamus also recommended not to bleed the patient.[22]

The Italian city of Pavia, in 1479, contracted Giovanni de Ventura as a community plague doctor.[5][23] The Irish physician, Niall Ó Glacáin (c.1563?–1653) earned deep respect in Spain, France and Italy for his bravery in treating numerous victims of the plague.[24][25] The French anatomists Ambroise Paré and Paracelsus were also famous medieval plague doctors.[26]


  1. 1 2 3 Cipolla, p. 65
  2. Cipolla, p. 68 3/4 down page
  3. Rosenhek, Jackie (October 2011). "Doctors of the Blahji am the best ck Death". Doctor's Review.
  4. Ellis, p. 202
  5. 1 2 3 4 Byrne (Daily), p. 169
  6. Simon, p. 3
  7. 1 2 3 Byrne, 170
  8. Gordon, p. 471
  9. Byrne, 168
  10. Christine M. Boeckl, Images of plague and pestilence: iconography and iconology (Truman State University Press, 2000), pp. 15, 27.
  11. Byrne (Encyclopedia), p. 505
  12. Irvine Loudon, Western Medicine: An Illustrated History (Oxford, 2001), p. 189.
  13. Wray, p. 172
  14. Wray, p. 173
  15. "The Plague Doctor". 2012-04-02. Retrieved 2012-06-12.
  16. Robert S. Gottfried, The Black Death: natural and human disaster in medieval Europe (Simon & Schuster, 1983), pp. 126–28.
  17. Byfield, p. 37
  18. Robert S. Gottfried, The Black Death: natural and human disaster in medieval Europe (Simon & Schuster, 1983), p. 126.
  19. Hogue, p. 1844
  20. The essential Nostradamus: literal translation, historical commentary, and ... By Richard Smoley. 2006-01-19. ISBN 978-1-4406-4984-4. Retrieved 2012-06-12.
  21. Pickover, p. 279
  22. 1 2 "Excellent et moult utile opuscule à tous/ nécessaire qui désirent avoir connoissan/ ce de plusieurs exquises receptes divisé/ en deux parties./ La première traicte de diverses façons/ de fardemens et senteurs pour illustrer et/ embelir la face./ La seconde nous montre la façon et/ manière de faire confitures de plusieurs/ sortes... Nouvellement composé par Maistre/ Michel de NOSTREDAME docteur/ en medecine... by Nostradamus". Retrieved 2012-06-12.
  23. King, p. 339
  24. Stephen, p. 927
  25. "THE HISTORY OF MEDICINE IN IRELAND; by J. OLIVER WOODS, MD, FRCGP, Page 40" (PDF). PMC 2385830Freely accessible.
  26. Körner, p. 13


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