Treasure of the month

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Plague Doctor - May 2007

'Plague Doctor'
Source unknown
(London: Callow & Wilson, 1827]

Plague doctors were not qualified physicians but merely people who assessed whether or not someone was suffering from the plague. Although plague hospitals were set up in Europe, English 'plague orders' dictated that victims be shut in houses, red crosses painted on doors, and victims left to die (although nurses were permitted to visit). Plague famously struck London in 1665 but in Newcastle, more than 5,000 people died from plague which had spread from North Shields in 1636.

The doctor wears a bird mask, the beak of which would have been filled with aromatic herbs or flowers as one theory for the cause of plague was inhaling miasmas, or clouds, of noxious air. Other theories were that plague was spread through livestock and that it was God's punishment for sin. As well as carrying poesies to sniff, people tried to prevent infection by fasting and praying, there was a cull of cats and dogs and inns and lodging houses were closed. As we now know, plague was actually caused by a bacillus in fleas which were carried by black rats. The bacillus flourished in the heat of summer but as the weather turned colder, incidents of plague declined.

People were terrified of catching the plague because victims suffered an agonising death from fevers and infected swellings. This fear must have been further heightened by the publication of weekly Bills of Mortality which published the number of deaths and their causes. The Philip Robinson Library has A Collection of the Yearly Bills of Mortality, From 1657 to 1758 inclusive. . . (London: Printed for A. Millar, 1759) and according to the 1665 bill, 97, 306 people were buried in the London parishes. Of those, 68, 596 had died from the plague. (Other causes of death included executed - 21, frighted - 23, King's Evil - 86, poisoned - 1 and stopping of the stomach - 332.)

Plague symptoms are the focus of the children's rhyme, 'A ring a ring a roses': Ring a ring a roses
A pocket full of posies
A-tishoo, a-tishoo
We all fall down.