Horrifying Things Most People Don't Know About Plague Doctors

Treating the bubonic plague became a medical specialty during the first widespread outbreak of the disease in the 14th century. The Black Plague, as it is also known, has made a comeback from time to time and, during its second major assault on Western Europe, plague doctors adopted the famous robe, mask, and hat-combo that one associates with the plague.  

Medical treatment for the bubonic plague by medieval doctors and their early modern counterparts didn't vary too much, but the plague doctor outfit of the 17th and 18th centuries did reflect a new approach to dealing with the disease.

  • The Plague Called For An Entirely New Type Of Doctor
    Photo: hans s / flickr / CC-BY-ND 2.0

    The Plague Called For An Entirely New Type Of Doctor

    There were several types of doctors in the medieval world. Physicians were individuals who had received some sort of university training, while surgeons lacked a formal education and were therefore considered inferior. Surgeons were often associated with barbers, who were allowed to let blood and pull teeth. 

    Apothecaries were responsible for dispensing drugs or, during the Middle Ages, herbs, sweets, and perfumes. There were also knowledgeable women – all of the other doctors were men – who were familiar with natural remedies and produced potions, salves, and tonics in their homes.

    Then, during the outbreak of the plague, a new type of doctor was developed. There were specific physicians who became known as plague doctors, specializing in preventing and treating the plague. They were hired by villages during the fourteenth century epidemic and throughout the next four centuries whenever the plague would pop back up.

  • Plague Doctors Started Wearing Those Creepy Outfits Long After The Middle Ages

    During the 17th century, plague doctors started wearing uniforms in an effort to protect themselves from their patients. Charles de l’Orme came up with concept of the long, dark robe worn with boots, gloves, and a hat in 1619.

    The idea was to keep the physician's entire body covered. The outer layer of the costume was made of goat leather and often coated in wax. Underneath, the doctor wore a blouse that tied to his boots.

  • Plague Masks Were All About Smelling The Roses

    The infamous plague masks were actually associated with air purity. During the 17th and 18th centuries, the idea that the air could be polluted became widespread and doctors sought to prevent "bad air," or the miasma, from getting to them.

    Eye holes were fitted with glass pieces so doctors could still see, and the long noses on the mask were filled with drugs and aromatic herbs, including mint, camphor, cloves, straw, laudanum, rose petals, and myrrh to filter the air. The herbs also helped with the smell, considering that the dead bodies and lanced buboes that doctors dealt with were rather pungent. 

    However, despite rumors, 'Ring Around The Rosie' was most likely not about the plague.

  • Plague Doctors Used Canes So They Could Be More Hands Off
    Photo: Lord Mariser / flickr / CC-BY-NC 2.0

    Plague Doctors Used Canes So They Could Be More Hands Off

    The canes that plague doctors carried served a few practical purposes. Doctors could use them to poke and prod a patient that was laying on the ground without having to touch them directly, and they may have been used to keep family members at bay or to protect themselves from desperate patients. They could also be used to communicate to their helpers where a body needed to go after a patient died.

  • Plague Doctors Treated Everyone Because Everyone Got The Plague

    Wealth certainly offers greater access to healthcare - that hasn’t changed much - but during the Middle Ages, plague doctors were hired by towns and villages to treat everyone. Since the location was paying them, not the individual, all sick people were provided with the same medical care.  

    For example, when Giovanni de Ventura served as a community plague doctor in Pavia in 1479, he received a monthly payment, a furnished house, local citizenship, and living expenses from the city.  He didn't charge the patients, but could take payment from individuals if they offered.

  • Common Treatments Were Not Pleasant

    Medieval medicine was based around the idea that the human body had four humors that needed to be in balance. Blood, phlegm, yellow bile, and black bile were to be balanced with the help of diet, herbs, natural medicines, and, if things got too far out of whack, blood would be removed from the body entirely. Hence, bloodletting.  

    In terms of plague treatments, doctors typically stuck with what they knew and tried to remove the toxic imbalance from the body by bloodletting their patients. They also lanced, rubbed toads on, or leeched the buboes to try to remove the sickness.

    Sex was prohibited too, but that rarely stuck.