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Unmasking London’s ancient diseases

Claire J Roberts3 July 2013

A Plague Doctor – from Jean-Jacques Manget, Traité de la peste (1721)

Sat in the auditorium of the Museum of London on 18th June, waiting for Dr Carol Reeves (UCL History of Medicine) to begin her Lunch Hour Lecture on the Black Death, it was a chilling introduction to the subject to see fully-robed plague doctors make their way slowly through the crowd chanting “make way, make way for the plague doctor”.

Although the illusion was slightly broken when one dropped their bell and another’s awkwardly-fitting hat and mask meant a brief encounter with the wall, I began to get a sense of the seriousness and superstition with which doctors, clergy and sufferers alike treated the plague during its first European pandemic from 1348.