A plague doctor, circa 1665. (Photo by Wikimedia Commons).

The final death sweep of the Bubonic Plague in England lasted just 18 months in 1665 and 1666, but that was long enough to wipe out almost a fourth of the population. There were 68,596 recorded fatalities in London alone and tallies from surrounding areas drove the death count to around 100,000 people. While there were practicing doctors during the plague of 1665, they really had no idea how to treat plague victims. The doctors themselves succumbed to the disease even more often than the Londoners they were trying to help.

The garb these plague doctors wore did have some grounding in medical sciences, but it was unequal to the scourge carried from person to person via rats and fleas. While the Hippocratic oath hadn’t been invented yet, these doctors still did their best, “protected” by bizarre costumes that were not only the forerunner of surgery masks but later-day Halloween costumes.

Charles II and Co. leave the plague behind

Aka “The Black Death,” the Bubonic Plague probably began in China and had been working its horrors in England for centuries. The poorest areas had the most waste in the streets, which attracted the most rats who’d been bitten by the flea that carried the virus. When this final outbreak got going, anyone who could flee the infested city did so. Britain’s ruler, Charles II, and his courtiers cleared out in July. But that left plenty of people behind to succumb to the gruesome lymph node swelling created by the plague. The progression of symptoms included headaches, vomiting, fever and one in three odds of dying within two weeks

The town councilors and their ilk had to stay behind as enforcers for the King. They tried to halt the plague by locking up entire households at the first sign of symptoms and taking dead bodies far outside the city for burial. Doctors, who were not quite as revered as they are in most of Europe today, also tried to tackle the plague at its origins. Many of them stayed behind in London to prescribe lucky charms, leeching, and tiny flower bouquets intended to drive away the smells. This gave rise to the gruesome nursery rhyme “Ring Around The Rosie” with its grim conclusion “They all fall down (dead).” But it did little to slow the virus.

Why plague doctors never left the house without their beaks

Many centuries ahead of the Airborne supplement with its herbal extracts, plague doctors had a different idea about how to protect themselves from an airborne disease. They put on a distinctive head-to-toe overcoat and a mask with a beak over the nose (it had little air vents, they did know they needed to breathe). They filled the beaks with sweet-smelling stuff of the time. Just like essential oil fans of today, they really liked the smell of lavender. They also tried to fend off the bad air with gloves, boots, beekeeper-type hats and any other over-clothing they could find. They carried long canes, too, so they didn’t have to touch their patients in order to disrobe them or treat them. Some could even read a patient’s pulse using only the end of their cane.

Why didn’t this protect the doctors? Mostly because the fleas were everywhere and they were acting on the assumption that it was the actual smell that made people sick, not the germs in the air. So they still came into plenty of contact with Bubonic Plague while thinking if they couldn’t smell it, it couldn’t harm them.

The plague ends, no thanks to the docs

When the plague finally ceased, it was not through the efforts of the doctors but probably because the Great Fire of London and fall temperatures killed off lots of the fleas. Since then, researchers have also theorized that the rats became more resistant to Black Death. When the host animals weren’t dying off, the flea didn’t have to seek and kill humans instead.