Plague Doctors – If They Turn Up, You’re Ill

One of the ways that you could tell you were ill, really, really ill, in the 13 and 1600’s as if a man dressed up as a bird turned up to treat you. This meant that you had the plague or the Black death or even the buboes. It meant that you were probably not long for this world. The Plague Doctor was a respected, if somewhat weird looking, character but what was the point of this often-seen character about town?

The Black death was a terrible disease that almost wiped out half of Europe’s population. We now know it is a blood disease that, with anti-biotics can now be treated. However back then the answer to this medical problem was met in several ways. The most popular remedy was one that was tried and tested since Greek times, namely, bloodletting. It does exactly what it says on the tin.  A vein is opened, and a few pints are drained off, living you feeling drained in the process. If that didn’t work, (and it didn’t), the Good Doctor would administer live frogs on the buboes. The medical profession based it’s thinking around the 4 humours, Yellow Bile, Black Bile, Phlegm, and Blood. If you were ill it was because you had too much of one of them and the easiest one to get rid of was blood. They were on the right lines with the applications of leeches though. In fact, this biomedicine has made something of a comeback today. By the 1600’s the medical advance of rubbing apples on the buboes was tried.

The Doctor would wander the streets administering were they were needed. At the time people were living in close quarters usually in larger urban areas. They certainly weren’t living and staying the in luxury houses and Birmingham Serviced Apartment style accommodation you can see on As we can see their methods weren’t very helpful and mostly they just ended up reporting how many people had died of the plague. Their help was free though as they were paid by the city which was pretty much unheard of.

Why were they dressed as the bird? Partly so people knew who they were; It was a badge of office. It was believed that the plague was caused by bad smells (a logical conclusion). It basically an early Hazmat suit. The Doctor wore a long waxed overcoat which was very heavy and no fun in the summertime. The beak wasn’t used until the 600’s onwards. By this stage, medical science felt it had a handle on the causes of the plague and that it was caused by bad smells. The way to stop that was to jam pleasant smelling herbs such as cloves, rose petals and mint into it. There is evidence that laudanum was used so there is a good possibility the Doctor was too high to notice. They should have given it to the victims to reduce there suffering.

Plenty of plague Doctors also died of the disease before it eventually burnt itself out. If you would like to find out more about this period of history take a look here.

Categorized as Health

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