what plague doctors can teach us about doing science

Plague doctors have been wrongly put in the pantheon of quacks. In reality, they created the biohazard suit as we know it.

plague doctors

Whenever we need a punchline for backwards beliefs in the West, we bring out our own version of a shaman, the bird mask wearing plague doctor. In their ignorance of the germ theory of disease, they resorted to stuffing the beaks of their masks with aromatic flowers, spices, and perfume to ward off disease carrying miasmas. Their lenses were darkened to avoid the evil eye which could have allowed an evil spirit to enter their bodies and give them the plague as well. They practiced bloodletting and turned to barbers to do surgeries on their patients. By today’s medical standards, their beliefs were mostly superstition and their methods were barbaric. But that’s really not a fair take on these physicians because we have the benefit of some 400 years of study, clinical trials, and technology people couldn’t even envision until the last few centuries. For them to be any more informed or better at what they did would’ve required a time machine and a trip into the future. And their famous suits were actually a cutting edge work for their time.

Let’s start with the mask to prevent disease-carrying miasmas from getting them ill. The theory was based on the idea that noxious smells carried the evil spirits of sickness. Ridiculous, right? Absolutely! Except when you start to smell mold, or something rotten, or decomposition, which we know are tell tale signs that we’re about to encounter something highly toxic. Septic wounds on a patient, or infected boils of the Black Death cut open, would be putrid to say the least, and our bodies would interpret the smell as a red flag for something we should avoid. The masks would’ve protected them from a number of airborne bacteria that could colonize their bodies, and filling their noses with pleasant smells would allow them to function when they’d otherwise be gagging. In effect, they were wearing primitive respirators in their dealings with a poorly known and understood disease, which is what experts in immunology do to this day. Not exactly foolish.

Their clothes would also be made of waxed leather and sealed shut. Waxed surfaces are hydrophobic, which means that blood, mucus, saliva, pus, or any other bodily fluid that would have been carrying the disease would not be able to get into the doctors’ suits. Lacking rubber, plastics, or synthetic super-hydrophobic coverings of today, they were well insulated from one of the most effective way for disease to spread. If you paid any attention to the news about the recent outbreaks of ebola in West Africa, you‘d have noted a widespread use of hazmat suits which are designed to do exactly the same thing: prevent infected fluids from any contact with the doctors’ and nurses’ skin, no matter how brief. Combined with the mask, the plague doctor’s odd outfit was basically the best hazmat suit the 1600s could offer and is really a forerunner of today’s high tech plastic and rubber ones. The plague doctors even used wooden canes not to touch their patients and block yet another vector for infectious disease, which was quite scientific.

And this brings us to the ultimate point of all this. Science in general, and the scientific method in particular, are not recently invented things around the Industrial Revolution when people lost their spiritual ways, as so many religious zealots will tell you. They were being done throughout history and even the people we now deride as an ill-informed and superstitious lot, who today are shorthand for archaic attempts to tackle a problem you just don’t understand with woefully inadequate tools, were actually doing it and did a really good job of it as well. Knowing that terrible odors are associated with disease, that touching the infected, or letting their bodily fluids touch your bare skin transmitted disease, their own real shortcoming was not knowing that microorganisms cause disease at a time when it was just a wild hunch, almost 200 years before it became accepted fact, and decades before there was even such a thing as a microscope, much less before we started to truly understand what we were seeing with one.

Today we’re doing something which in 500 years will seem ill informed and almost downright barbaric, probably neurosurgery involving scalpels and a person removing a large part of someone else’s skull while poking around in it with metal tools. But you know what? We’re still heading towards the best way to help those whose brains are injured or have been afflicted by disease we don’t understand as well as we should, and we’re doing the best we can, using techniques we know for a fact work more often than they don’t, even if it’s imperfect, because we notice the imperfections, ask more questions so we can do research, and come up with more refined techniques, building on the correct guesses and good ideas of generations past, like plague doctors were doing when they developed the first hazmat suit to deal with new and deadly diseases. Remember that when you start talking about our ignorant ancestors who lacked centuries of carefully accumulated knowledge, and to which they contributed so you can look down on them today…

# science // health / history / scientific method

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