A plague doctor was a medical physician who treated those who had the plague. They were specifically hired by towns that had many plague victims in times of epidemics. Since the city was paying their salary, they treated everyone: both the rich and the poor. 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. These doctors rarely cured their patients; rather, they got a count of the number of people contaminated for demographic purposes.
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.
In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, 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 design of these costumes has been attributed to Charles de Lorme, the chief physician to Louis XIII.
The first epidemic of the Bubonic Plague, also known as the Black Death, dates back to the mid 6th century and is called the Plague of Justinian. The largest number of people affected by the epidemic were the Black Death victims 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.
In some cases, plague doctors were so valuable that when Barcelona dispatched two to Tortosa in 1650, outlaws captured them en route and demanded a ransom. The city of Barcelona paid for their release. The city of Orvieto hired Matteo fu Angelo in 1348 for 4 times the normal rate of a doctor of 50-florin per year. Pope Clement VI hired several extra plague doctors during the Black Death plague. They were to attend to the sick people of Avignon. Of eighteen doctors in Venice, only one was left by 1348: five had died of the plague, and twelve were missing and may have fled.
Some plague doctors wore a special costume. The garments were invented by Charles de L'Orme in 1619; they were first used in Paris, but later spread to be used throughout Europe. The protective suit consisted of a heavy fabric overcoat that was waxed, a mask with glass eye openings and a cone nose shaped like a beak that was always stuffed with nice scented herbs, straw, and spices, as, in those days, they thought disease was carried by nothing but air, and they thought that this kind of suit protected them.
Some of the scented materials were ambergris, lemon Balm (Melissa officinalis), mint (Mentha spicata L.) leaves, camphor, cloves, laudanum, myrrh, rose petals, storax. This was thought to protect the doctor from miasmatic bad air. The straw provided a filter for the "bad air". A wooden cane pointer was used to help examine the patient without having to touch them.