Long handled cautery, 17th century.
© Science Museum / Science & Society Picture Library
A metal cautery for cauterising plague buboes (a swollen inflamed lymph node in the armpit, neck or groin). Cautery irons were heated until red-hot like branding irons, and applied to burn and seal bleeding areas, such as buboes, skin ulcers or amputation stumps. The long handle allowed the physician to keep his distance from the patient. Regular outbreaks of bubonic plague, a disease transmitted from rats to people by fleas, occurred in Medieval times and continued until the 17th century. The most notable plague outbreak was the Black Death of the 14th century, which originated in China, and is estimated to have killed a third of the population of Europe.