Medical Research Council - London Institute of Medical Sciences

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Historical Week Plague Protectors
09 August 2013

Plague Protectors

Medieval Europe was repeatedly devastated by plagues. Roughly half the European population was lost to the Black Death of the 14th Century, and appalling sanitary conditions in busy towns and cities allowed plague-like pandemics to spread and recur for centuries afterwards. By the 17th century, plague doctors wore special outfits (pictured), aimed to ward off plagues thought to be carried in ‘bad air’. Their beak-like masks were filled with strong smelling spices, cloves, myrrh, rose petals and laudanum, a dilute form of opium. This may have been a pungent mix but wouldn’t have stopped an infection; DNA analysis now suggests that plagues were probably transmitted by the bite of fleas carrying deadly Yersinia pestis bacteria. With infection nearly always fatal within days, plague doctors often used a long wooden cane to examine the patient’s sores at a distance, as well as for beating back the infected who came too close.

Written by John Ankers

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