“Three litres of beer laced with garlic was one of the early cures recommended by the plague doctor,” explained David Merton. “If people survived that I’d like to think they probably could survive the plague!.”
He’s speaking about Dr Alexandr Schamsky, Prague’s forgotten hero and the protagonist of the Plague Doctor tour through the streets of the Czech Republic capital. During lockdown, he’s conducting the tour as a virtual experience for the very first time and the parallels between the plague and the present-day Covid pandemic lend it added significance.
David (with beer in hand) transports us back to 1713 and the disease infested streets of the Old Town. “Emperor Charles VI told the people the plague was a heavenly punishment and that only prayer was the cure,” he explains. “Ironically, though, the churches were closed, so people gathered in groups around columns dotted throughout the city – completely unaware they were spreading the disease. At the end of the outbreak, plague columns were erected to thank God for ending the plague which you can see today dotted around the city.”
A lover of history, beer and beards German born David worked for many years as a drama teacher so has a flair for making the historical dramatic. “Schamsky lost both his parents to cancer and subsequently became obsessed with studying illness,” he continues. By the age of 20 Schamsky had gained his medical degree and when the bubonic plague hit in 1713 he set to treating his victims.
The tour starts at the medieval Charles Bridge and meanders towards the Jewish quarter. David talks about the history of Prague and the different statues along the way including Ladislav Saloun who sculpted the Iron Knight that looks a lot like a certain superhero. “Czech people like to think they invented Batman”, he says.
As the legend goes the Knight had gone off to fight in one of the many battles that raged in that era. When he returned he heard a slanderous rumour that his betrothed had been unfaithful. I won’t tell you any more I will leave that to David.
He also explains the history of this fascinating city, disclosing hidden gems in the dark streets – the old Jewish cemetery for instance, which was founded in the first half of the 15th century is the oldest surviving Jewish cemetery in Europe. It is still unknown as to how many bodies are buried there. There are 1200 visible graves but 12 layers of tombs. The tour concludes at the St Francis hospital which has over 6 centuries of history.
Just like our NHS doctors today who are treating people through the present pandemic Doctor Schamsky and others wore specific personal protective equipment that covered their whole body including a large brown coat and a beak-like mask. David explained to us that the masks were filled with fresh herbs and straw in the summer and spices throughout the winter. They believed this would protect them from the putrid air in the homes and hospitals they entered.
The doctors also carried a cane to examine and direct patients without touching them. Today’s doctors don’t use canes but we have seen helmet like protective gear that acts similarly to the masks worn in the 18th century. However, unlike the NHS staff today Plague Doctors didn’t start to wash their hands until the 18th century. Treatment was more about speed – getting through surgeries quickly. David’s idea of booking an early appointment in those days was a great recommendation!
David referred to Robert Liston a Scottish surgeon known as the fastest knife in town. Noted for his skill in an era prior to anaesthetics when patients wanted surgery to be over as quickly as possibly. He is said to have removed a 45 pound tumour of the scrotum in 4 minutes! Prior to the operation the owner had been carrying it around in a wheel barrow – I imagine that was the worst and best 4 minutes of the patients life.
Schamsky died at the age of 27 from the plague and his name forgotten. But now David is resurrecting his heroic acts. Throughout the tour I’d be sipping away on a beer (as suggested by David) – lucky for me the virtual element meant he couldn’t slip in a few cloves of garlic to test Schamsky’s old plague ridding-remedy.
David goes into the detailed biology of the plague. He explains how the surgeons of the time were more like craftsmen than medics, how more people died of infections after surgery than survived. Most startling of all that there wasn’t a cure for the plague for 500 years until the anti-biotic was discovered in the 1940s. Covid19 has only been around 6 months which puts our impatience into a whole new perspective – let’s hope we don’t need to wait another 500 years for a vaccine.
He talks about rats and how amazing these animals are. I never knew they could swim for 2 days straight and dive for 4 mins at a time! On his walking tour David tells everyone that he walks in front to look out for rats, he’s not really, he’s looking out for dog poop.
“People are sometimes a bit scared on the tour, that is quite fun for me. My own sense of humour can be a bit special and quite dark, which attracts the English people,” followed by a chuckle.
I received a great question once which made me laugh a lot – did you ever consider to infect yourself with the plague to get a more immersive experience”?
“My answer of course was no, even though we do have a cure now so I could”.
At the end of the tour David spoke a poem …. may angels watch me through the night, protect me to the morning’s light. Your plague doctor of Prague is here, enjoy yourselves and drink your beer.