The Medical Response to the Black Death
By Joseph A. Legan
Senior Honors Project, James Madison University, 2015
Introduction: The Black Death pandemic of the 14th century is one of the most well-known and studied disease outbreaks in history. The pestilence caused by the bacteria Yersinia Pestis likely originated in the Mongolian steppes around 1331. By 1353, the Plague had spread throughout most of Europe, Asia and North Africa, with mortality rates as high as 75% in some areas.
Medical professionals in both the Middle East and Europe were woefully unprepared to handle an epidemic of this magnitude. Physicians at the time were reliant on medical techniques and theories that dated back to Aristotle and Hippocrates in the 4th century BCE. Though many did try, doctors had no real way to cure or prevent the disease. Along with religious causes, medical causes, such as theories of humors and the spread of pestilential miasmas, were put forth to explain the Plague.
Even though medicine in the Middle East was marginally more advanced than European medicine, particularly in the areas of surgery and anatomy, physicians in both regions were unsuccessful at treating the Plague; however, the Black Death served to promote medical innovations that laid the foundations of modern medicine.