The recent flu epidemic has many people rushing to their local drugstores to receive the flu shot in hopes of avoiding coming down with this particularly nasty strain of flu virus. Vaccines are modern marvels of medicine that help prevent worldwide outbreaks of deadly disease. Before the invention of vaccination by Edward Jenner in 1796, diseases like the bubonic plague ravaged Europe. Bubonic plague, also known as the Black Death, was a disease that ran rampant in Europe in the 14th century, but was particularly deadly in Venice in 1629-1631 (Crawshaw, 2016). The Black Death was characterized by muscle aches, swollen lymph nodes, nausea, fever, and blackening of skin often accompanied with black boils that would discharge both blood and pus, found typically on the armpits and around the groin (Ryan, 2018). At the time, contraction of the disease was practically a death sentence. Today, we know that the culprit for this disease is bacteria called Yersinia pestis and can be easily treated if antibiotics are given before sepsis occurs. Given that this was still before the time of antibiotics, how did the Venetians go about treating and preventing the spread of the bubonic plague?
In typical Venetian fashion, the government was concerned with the well-being of people of all social classes and not those who could simply afford to see a physician. They recognized the plague for the threat that is was, rather than an affliction of the lower classes and merchants. In response, the government established two hospitals, known as lazzaretti (Crawshaw, 2016). The first hospital established for plague victims in 1423 was known as Lazzarreto Vecchio, or “Old Quarantine.” The second plague hospital known as Lazzarreto Nuovo, or “New Quarantine”, was established in 1468 in the lagoon. These hospitals were operated by either chaplains or nuns, whose responsibilities over their patients was not to try to cure them but to take care of the patient through death. Essentially, the strategy employed by the Venetian government was to keep those who were diseased away from the healthy, in hopes of stopping the spread of disease, in addition to giving the diseased a respectable death with tender care. It is estimated that of all the patients that entered the hospital, about 73% died there.
Doctors did frequent these hospitals to try to treat their patients. Believing that the disease was caused by foul smelling air, termed as “miasma”, plague doctors donned themselves with a long hooded cloak, hat, and bird like mask with herbs, roses, and other pleasant smelling plants packed into the beak, to prevent any of the poisonous air from entering their nostrils (Giraldo-Grueso, Echeverri, & Conde, 2017). These masks are still often worn today, during Carnevale. Doctors performed bloodletting on their patients, either causing small incisions to the skin or drawing blood through use of leeches (Cohen, 2012). Bloodletting was used to rid the body of an overabundance of blood, which was thought to be the cause of many illnesses.
Bloodletting, as we know today, did very little for the patients besides possibly allow for secondary infections from the cuts, as well as spread the bacteria of the infected blood to whoever was unfortunate enough to come under the knife next. Without much knowledge of disease and how to treat bacterial infections, it is commendable that the Venetian government was able to recognize that quarantining the diseased and potentially ill was the only hope for keeping the rest of the population safe. Both Lazzaretto Vecchio and Lazzaretto Nuovo can be visited today, with tours arranged in advance!
Cohen, J. (2012, May 30). A Brief History of Bloodletting. Retrieved February 28, 2018, from The History Channel Website.
Crawshaw, J. L. (2016). Plague hospitals: public health for the city in early modern Venice. Abingdon: Routledge.
Giraldo-Grueso, M., Echeverri, D., & Conde, R. (2017). “Il dottore della peste”. Revista Colombiana de Cardiología, 24(6), 541-544.
Ryan, K. J. (2018). Sherris Medical Microbiology (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill Education