Plague doctors are hands-down some of the creepiest-looking medical professionals that ever existed. Well, sort of professionals. And sort of medical.
Plague doctors were hired by the cities themselves, so they were obligated to help whoever they could, whether they were rich or poor. However, this wasn’t always a good thing, because…
In the absence of medical school or documentation, there was no screening as to who could become a plague doctor. They were often second-rate practitioners or new, young doctors, but in one case, a plague doctor’s previous profession had been a fruit salesman.
The most iconic part of the plague doctor’s costume is the mask. It was made with a purpose, however. There was a medical theory at the time called “miasma theory,” where they believed that foul scents caused disease. Therefore, to protect themselves from disease, the plague doctors filled the beaks of their masks with herbs that would cover the scents of their sick and dying patients.
They also held special privileges. Many plague doctors charged extra to the families of their patients for their care and were also given the ability to perform autopsies, which is otherwise absolutely forbidden in Europe.
During the Black Death, 18 doctors attended to the city of Venice. By 1348, only one remained. Five died of plague and 12 were missing (presumed fled).
Plague doctors operated in a time where people believed the “humors” theory of medicine, where diseases were thought to be cured by rebalancing the four humors – normally, this involved bloodletting, the application of leeches, or perhaps apply a frog on the patient’s sores.
Surprisingly, the one plague doctor that had some new medical ideas is the source of many modern conspiracy theories – Nostradamus. His advice was to remove infected corpses, drinking clean water, and absolutely not bleeding the patient.