Medical Definition of Black Death

  • Medical Author:
    William C. Shiel Jr., MD, FACP, FACR

    Dr. Shiel received a Bachelor of Science degree with honors from the University of Notre Dame. There he was involved in research in radiation biology and received the Huisking Scholarship. After graduating from St. Louis University School of Medicine, he completed his Internal Medicine residency and Rheumatology fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. He is board-certified in Internal Medicine and Rheumatology.

Black Death: The Medieval black plague that ravaged Europe and killed a third of its population. It was due to the plague which is caused by a bacterium (Yersinia pestis) transmitted to humans from infected rats by the oriental rat flea.

In 14th-century Europe, the victims of the Black Death had bleeding below the skin (subcutaneous hemorrhage) which darkened ("blackened") their bodies. The Black Death was characterized by gangrene of the fingers, toes, and nose.

Although some scientists have speculated that the Black Death was caused by other agents (including anthrax, typhus, and Ebola virus), DNA tests on 600-year-old teeth from victims of the Black Death have confirmed that Yersinia pestis was indeed the cause of the Black Death.

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Reviewed on 12/4/2018

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