London 1665. A pandemic swept the city leaving death and despair in its wake. It was the “the disastrous mortal disease known as the Black Death” , a disease that left many professional medics of the era stumped. One such medic was Nathaniel Hodges, born on 14th September 1629. His interest in science was obvious from the beginning, and during his life he attended both Trinity College, Cambridge and later Oxford University. In 1672 he was admitted into the fellowship of the College of Physicians in 1672 as a result of his extensive research into plague treatment.
Hodges developed his ideas and theories on the Plague whilst it happened, as he resided in London throughout the disease’s lifespan. Hodge compiled his findings of the Plague into his detailed book LOIMOLOGIA or, a Historical Account of the Plague in London in 1665. Within this book he detailed the symptoms and possible cures and remedies for the ailment. Hodges stated that the main ways to identify whether or not one was afflicted with the Plague was by checking if they displayed:
“The Symptoms of the first Class are Horror, Vomiting, Delirium, Dizziness, Head-ach, and Stupefaction. Of the second, a Fever, Watching, Palpitation of the Heart, Bleeding at Nose, and a great Heat about the Precordia.” Quote from the LOIMOLGIA
Hodges also established theories on cures for the Black Death. Many of these ideas were quite ‘off the wall’; for example, he believed that by using the flesh of a rattle snake as a fire torch to treat patients he could cure the sick, and even thought that this method was relatively effective compared with the use of more conservative methods. Another rather bizarre option of treatment that Hodges formed was the use of powdered unicorn horn. He tested this theory out many times after buying a bag of said ‘unicorn horn’ from a travelling merchant. It is unsurprising that Hodges soon realised that this didn’t provide the results he hoped for and soon started to question the existence of such an animal. Other treatments that Hodges advocated, which were a little more mainstream, was the use of berries, nuts, flowers, wines and vinegars. This concurred with what many other doctors thought at the time who encouraged the use of Plague Water, which was a combination of many of the ingredients listed, as a valid and effective cure.
The bizarre ideas of doctors such as Hodge make it more difficult to trust in their prognosis, especially when coupled with the limited medical knowledge of the time. Simple mistakes could have even been made when diagnosing patients, and in reality, seemingly harmless illness could have actually been the Plague, or those diagnosed with Plague may not have been infected at all. We can see this when we look at a Bill of Mortality for a week in September 1665. This is because many of the disease listed here are also share the same symptoms as the Plague, such as ‘Feaver’, of which 309 people died. Therefore with the lack of detailed medical knowledge, misdiagnosis was commonplace at this time and meant that people could be receiving the wrong treatment.
This graph shows us that 90% of all deaths, which was 7,165 people, were from the Plague, reinforcing the point that physicians could not be fully trusted to effectively care for those on the brink of death, as even though they had cures that they all believed in, none of these had any effect as people were still dying in their thousands week by week.
To conclude, we must recognise that we can’t judge Hodges and his peers by modern day standards as we have now have a more detailed understanding of the world, health care and hygiene. We must also realise that even if a cure was developed it would be difficult to spread the news as communication was limited and it would have taken weeks, if not months for the cure to circulate the country. Therefore although Hodges used unorthodox methods, at the time of the Plague he was seen as a much respected physician for his work and determination to find a cure and still remains one of the most well respected writers on the medical and social effects of the disease.
Much of our general information about Nathaniel Hodges was taken from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.