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  • Edinburgh Plague
  • Edinburgh Plague

    The Edinburgh Plague was first recorded in the year 1513 and made several appearances over the years, as it did across Britain in the middle ages. Symptoms included swollen lymph glands, puss filled ‘buboes’ in the armpits and groin, and severe vomiting which could be so violent as to rupture the victims internal organs. Mortality rates were as high as 90 percent in some outbreaks.

    The worst outbreak of the plague in Edinburgh was that of 1645. It was recorded afterward that at it’s height, there were barely sixty men left able enough to defend town of Edinburgh. The plague of 1645 was also the last to blight Edinburgh.

    The overcrowded state of Edinburgh’s old town and the heavy infestation of rats made it very easy for the plague to spread. Fleas were the most common form of transmission and once infected the victims chances of survival were very slim.

    Plague sufferers were confined to their homes and instructed to hang white sheets from the doors and windows, they would then be visited by the Plague Doctor, although ‘treatment’ was rarely a success.

    Edinburgh Plague Doctors

    The first plague doctor of Edinburgh was John Paulitious who died (of the plague) in June 1645 after only a short time in the job. A large salary was promised to the second plague doctor in Edinburgh, one George Rae.

    Rae was a much more successful plague doctor, dressed in a truly frightening ‘costume’ designed to protect him from the Edinburgh plague as they perceived it at that time. He wore a large beaked mask which was filled with sweet smelling herbs at the nose, along with a leather cloak. Although the Edinburgh plague was thought to be airborne, the leather happened to protect George Rae from rat and flea bites, which was the real reason he survived the plague epidemic and was able to help so many sufferers. Rae would burst open the buboes of victims and sterilise the wound with a hot poker. Bear in mind however, that there were no anaesthetics available in Edinburgh at that time..

    Edinburgh town council never intended to pay the large salary which was promised to Rae, as the plague doctor wasn’t expected to survive. It is known that George Rae pursued Edinburgh’s town council for the money for years afterwards but it is unlikely he was ever paid.

    It is not known exactly how many people died as a result of the Edinburgh Plague of 1645, but over 90,000 are estimated to have perished in Leith alone.

    Written by Shaun Flanagan

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