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A plague doctor was a special medical physician who treated those who had the plague. They were specifically hired by towns that had many plague victims in times of epidemics. However, some plague doctors were known for charging patients and their families extra for special treatments and/or false cures. They were not normally professionally trained experienced physicians or surgeons, and often were second-rate doctors unable to otherwise run a successful medical business or young physicians trying to establish themselves.
Plague doctors by their covenant treated plague patients and were known as municipal or “community plague doctors”, whereas “general practitioners” were separate doctors and both might be in the same European city or town at the same time. In France and the Netherlands plague doctors often lacked medical training and were referred to as “empirics”. In one case a plague doctor had been a fruit salesman before his employment as a physician.
Some doctors wore a beak-like mask which was filled with aromatic items. The masks were designed to protect them from putrid air, which (according to the miasmatic theory of disease) was seen as the cause of infection.
The first epidemic of bubonic plague dates back to the mid 6th century, known as the Plague of Justinian. The largest epidemic was the Black Death of Europe in the 14th century. In medieval times the large loss of people due to the bubonic plague in a town created an economic disaster. Community plague doctors were quite valuable and were given special privileges. For example, plague doctors were freely allowed to perform autopsies, which were otherwise generally forbidden in Medieval Europe, to research a cure for the plague.