A plague doctor (Italian: physici epidemeie, Dutch: pestmeester, German: Pestarzt), was a special medical physician of the Middle Ages who saw those who had the bubonic plague. They were specifically hired by towns that had many plague victims in times of plague epidemics. Since the city was paying their salary they treated everyone, the rich and the poor. They were not normally professionally trained experienced physicians or surgeons, and often were second rate doctors not able to otherwise run a successful medical business or young physicians just out of school trying to get a medical business going. They were not otherwise a general practitioner or “family doctor”. Plague doctors by their covenant treated only 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.
The beak they had was a filter for what they believed to be bad, infected air.In France and the Netherlands plague doctors many times didn’t have any medical training and were referred to as “empirics” – and even in one case he was just a fruit-seller beforehand. Being a medieval plague doctor was unpleasant, risky, and difficult. The chances of survival in times of a plague epidemic were slim. Because of the dangers and difficulties involved, plague doctors were very hard to find.
Pope Clement VI had 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.
The first epidemic of bubonic plague dates back to the mid 500s, known as the Plague of Justinian. The largest epidemic was the Black Death of Europe in the fourteenth 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, a normally well guarded procedure of autopsies was freely allowed by plague doctors to allow research for a cure of the plague during the Middle Ages. The city of Orvieto hired Matteo fu Angelo in 1348 for 4 times the normal rate of a doctor of 50-florin per year.
So valuable were plague doctors 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.
A plague doctor would have worn a beak doctor costume in his role as a specialized doctor. He was known then as a “Beak Doctor”. The protective suit consisted of a heavy fabric overcoat that was waxed, a mask of glassed eye openings and a cone shaped like a beak to hold scented substances. Some of the scented materials were amber, balm-mint leaves, camphor, cloves, laudanum, myrrh, rose petals, and storax.A wooden cane pointer was used to help examine the patient without touching.
Historian O’Donnell says that a medieval plague doctor was also referred to as the chirurgeon (Middle English “cirurgien”, from Old French, from Latin chīrurgia, from Greek χειρουργία, as referring to surgery). He says the chirurgeon wore a long black oilcloth robe that had a hood.It was intended as a protection suit against the contagious plague. This costume had openings for the eyes that were made of glass. It also had a hollow long beak for the nose, which was filled with camphor, garlic, mint, or a sponge of vinegar. This was all to protect the doctor from miasmatic bad air.
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. They instructed plague patients to be serene and lighthearted and to think of only gold, silver, and other items which were comforting to the heart instead of death.
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. Plague doctors became testators and witnesses to numerous wills during times of plague epidemics.
Plague doctors practiced bloodletting and other remedies such as putting frogs on the buboes “rebalancing the humors” as a normal routine. After plague doctors saw patients they were quarantined for a lengthy period (e.g. 40 days). Plague doctors could not generally interact with the general public because of the nature of their business and the possiblility of spreading the disease.
Notable Medieval Plague Doctors
A famous plague doctor who gave medical advice against the Black Death plague as preventative measures was Nostradamus. He advised to drink only boiled water, use only clean bed linens, and to leave an area as soon as possible that was believed to be infected with the Black Death.
Paracelsus was a famous medieval plague doctor. The Italian city of Pavia in 1479 contracted Giovanni de Ventura as a community plague doctor. 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.