black death, plague and plague doctors
The Black Death was mentioned on another thread, so I thought I’d write a little about it on The Pack-Porch Forum topic.
The Black Death raged for about ten years in the mid 14th century. It was probably caused by Yersinia pestis. This was not only carried by black rats and their fleas, but also directly spread from person to person via respiratory droplet infection particularly when people were huddled together.
I’ve always been fascinated by the plague doctor’s outfit. This was invented surprisingly late, in fact in the early 17th century. The cause of plague was thought to be bad air or ‘miasma’ and the plague doctor’s costume was designed specifically with miasma-theory in mind. Tall boots were worn, over which was worn a pair of leather breeches. A black smock was worn, high in the neck and belted at the waist. A hood was worn over the back of the head and neck. The fabric was very specific. It was linen, and it was waxed. A pair of long gauntlets was worn. The most striking item of apparel was the mask. It was made of stiff leather and covered the face. It had eye-holes which contained flat lenses of pink glass, and over the mouth a long beak with breathing-holes at the tip. The beak contained dry herbs, notably thyme and rosemary. The doctor carried a long cane with which he directed operations. He wore a physician’s hat with a wide brim.
In preventing infection this garb must have been quite effective, even though the reasons for designing it thus were completely mistaken. Plague is caused by bacterial infection, not by bad air. Yet this outfit would have been effective at preventing transmission of Yersinia to the doctor. Infected rat fleas do not jump very high (the bacterium grows in their foregut and they starve, biting people repeatedly: evolution at its nastiest). Thus the boots and leather trousers are effective. The proofed fabric would have prevented flea-bites. The gauntlets would have been effective in preventing the transmission of bacteria in the pus from weeping buboes. Plague can be spread by coughing (pneumonic plague) and the mask would have been very effective. The glass lenses would have prevented the bacteria entering the eye, and the dried herbs in the beak would have caught the bacteria, which cannot survive drying. Thymol is antiseptic (thymol).
So. A medical uniform effective for all the unexpected reasons. (Interesting, one plague doctor commented that he never got a flea-bite while wearing his costume — about 150 years before fleas were found to be implicated in plague.)