Medicine in Stuart England had advanced from the days of the Tudors – as would be expected – but knowledge was still crude in the extreme and the impact this had on the way the Plague of 1665 was tackled was marked especially when it came to the medical profession administering ‘cures’.
Many of the doctors of the time believed that the human body was made up of four ‘humours’. The humours were linked to the four ‘elements’. The four humours were earth, fire, water and air while the four elements were black bile, yellow bile, phlegm and blood. When the humours and elements were in harmony, a person enjoyed good health. When they were not, a person became ill. To ensure that the humours stayed balanced, doctors used bleeding and vomiting as cures.
Physicians were some of the higher trained medical practitioners in London at the time of the plague. They studied for exams and needed a license to ply their trade and charged for their services – and for each mile they travelled. They spent their time looking after the rich and to all intents ignored the poor even though they were meant to treat them for free. When the plague hit London in 1665, anybody with money got out of the city – and so did many of the physicians who left to be near their rich clients.
Barbers (barber surgeons) were also allowed to engage in some medical practices but their knowledge was remarkably limited.
London also had its share of apothecaries – chemists whose shops were stocked with medicines and cures, which could be sold to the public. Many of these cures were ‘quack’ cures but were all the poor could afford.
Some of the cures for the plague seem laughable now but in 1665 they would have been all the poor would have had access to. It was believed that sweet smells would drive away the plague so many took to carrying flowers. Others believed that smoke would cure the plague and advised people to burn anything – such as leather – that would create smoke within a household. Others physicians believed that making the victim sweat would also cure the patient, so they encouraged an afflicted family to make their house as hot as was possible.
Other quack cures were curious by any standards but were indicative of the superstition that affected medical knowledge. Some of the few physicians who stayed in London during the plague wore a dead toad around their neck as it was believed that this would ward off the plague.