The bubonic plague was one of the darkest moments in human history. The sheer number of deaths is still often discussed, but what about the doctors who were at the forefront of all the chaos? Like how they were affected, what was their approach to tackling their plague, and how many long shifts they had to endure. There are just so many questions! Lucky for you this list might hold some of the answers. Here are five fascinating details about plague doctors you may have never known.
1. The Look
In an attempt to protect themselves while treating patients, plague doctors devised what we now recognize as humanity’s first attempt at a hazmat suit. Since handwashing wasn’t a thing back then, the next best thing was to cover their body from head to toe. The uniform consisted of a full-length coat made of waxen leather, a shirt, breeches, boots, a cane and a wide-brimmed hat. And let’s not forget about their iconic beaked masks that were filled with herbs and spices meant to overpower the “poison air” or miasma which they believed was the cause of the plague.
2. Treatment Options
During the plague, many reputed doctors just up and left, so the responsibility fell in the hands of a group of mostly rejected doctors, newbies and volunteers who had little to no medical experience whatsoever. So how did they handle it? Eating applesauce, mustard or mint sauce and filling houses with aromas were some of their go-to options. They also resorted to rubbing patients with a mixture of onion, herbs, pigeon or snake. But the craziest treatments were bloodletting (cutting people to remove (bad blood), feeding patients mercury and arsenic and… smothering them with their own excrement? It’s safe to assume that many of these patients died even faster.
3. Data Collection
The daily duties of plague doctors went beyond treating the sick; they also had to collect data, lots of data. It was their responsibility to keep track of everything going on like confirmed cases, suspected cases, fatalities, recovered patients and much more. But it didn’t stop there; the doctors also recorded their patients’ wills and even testified in court as they were often there during their final moments. Autopsies were also a part of the job as this helped them get a better understanding of how the disease affected the human body.
For a really long time, being a doctor was one of the most prestigious jobs that few ever had the opportunity to pursue. But that went out the window during the bubonic plague. Given how much time they spent with the sick, it was no surprise that they often became ill, which led to many people avoiding them. They were also forbidden from interacting with the general public as long as they were still employed. And self-quarantining after treating patients was an absolute must. Sounds like it was a lonely job, don’t you think?
5. Treated Everyone
The bubonic plague, like COVID-19, doesn’t discriminate and everyone, young or old, rich or poor, was subject to its wrath. Under normal circumstances, citizens would pay for their doctor’s visit. But as the death toll kept rising, it became clear to the town councils that not everyone could afford payments. That’s when they stepped in and hired doctors to treat everyone, going from village to village. The position paid well, and the doctors even enjoyed extra benefits such as a free home, a pension and payment of expenses.
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