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Why European plague doctors wore those strange beaked masks?

4 min read

Four hundred years ago, dark figures with white beaks wandered the streets of Europe. But these were no boogeymen or other creepy figures, but healers, so dressed to stave off the current disease: the bubonic plague.
The plague was once the most feared disease in the world, capable of killing hundreds of millions of people in seemingly unstoppable global pandemics and afflicting its victims with painfully swollen lymph nodes, blackened skin, and other macabre symptoms.

Despite plagues were nothing new at the time, when outbreaks were routine in medieval Europe, the outfit was a morbidly chic addition to doctors’ protective arsenal. Today, plague-doctor uniforms, worn for centuries both by actual medical professionals and empirics enlisted to help combat infectious diseases despite not having graduated from med school, remain an iconic reminder of how alienating, and terrible, illness.
In 17th-century Europe, the physicians, who often tended to plague victims, wore a costume that has since taken on sinister overtones: they covered themselves head to toe and wore a mask with a long bird-like beak.
These physicians prescribed what were believed to be protective concoctions and plague antidotes, witnessed wills, and performed autopsies—and did it so while wearing their beaked masks.

The uniform is typically attributed to Charles de Lorme, a chief physician to several French kings, including King Louis XIII and Gaston d’Orléans, son of Marie de Médici, who around 1630 proposed the need for such wear to keep health workers safe from disease. He described an outfit that included a coat covered in scented wax, breeches connected to boots, a tucked-in shirt, and a hat and gloves made of goat leather.
Plague doctors also carried a rod that allowed them to inspect from a distance (or fend off) patients.
Plague doctors were also equipped with a white leather masks that ended in a conical beak, a vital component of the miasma theory, in short, the long-since-disproven notion that held that diseases could spread through their stink. Oh, and of course, rotting corpses from the so called Black Death, covered with pustules, had a ferocious odor, so any thick mask was in high demand! Thus Plague Doctors filled their masks with theriac, a compound of more than 55 herbs and other components like viper flesh powder, cinnamon, myrrh, and honey. De Lorme thought the beak shape of the mask would give the air sufficient time to be suffused by the protective herbs before it hit their nostrils and lungs. Usefull. Expecially to keep the stench of pestilence out of their noses.

Plague is caused by Yersinia pestis, bacteria that can be transmitted from animals to humans and through flea bites, contact with contaminated fluid or tissue, and inhalation of infectious droplets from sneezing or coughing people with pneumonic plague.
Historically, three horrific plague pandemics swept across the globe before its cause was ultimately uncovered: the Plague of Justinian, which killed up to 10,000 people a day circa A.D. 561, the Black Death, which wiped out up to a third of Europeans between 1334 and 1372 and continued with intermittent outbreaks as late as 1879, including the outbreak that hit all Milan city (except one area!) in 1629, and a Third Pandemic, which ravaged much of Asia between 1894 and 1959, like the one that hit Hong Kong.
In any case, the plague doctors’ outfits didn’t make much of a difference. Unfortunately, writes historian Frank M. Snowden, “the therapeutic strategies of early modern plague doctors did little to prolong life, relieve suffering, or effect a cure.”
Despite plague doctors may have been immediately recognizable, until the rise of the germ theory of disease and modern antibiotics, their costumes didn’t provide real protection against the disease.

Herewith are several timely depictions of these early, eerie health-care workers, wearing a costume that dominated plague epidemics up through the 19th century. Though plague doctors across Europe wore these outfits, the look was so iconic in Italy that the “plague doctor” became a staple of Italian commedia dell’arte and carnival celebrations, and is still a popular costume today expecially in Venice’s carnival, a traditon lasting over 900 years.
And memories of the plague resonate in Venice during the coronavirus pandemic….

1656. The German artist Paul Fürst’s satirical depiction of Doctor Schnabel aka “Dr. Beak”—so named for the mask’s birdlike protuberance.
1721. A plague doctor in Marseille is smoking the materials in his beak—a dubious means of warding off the plague.
A plague mask and a station used for disinfecting letters on Poveglia, an island between Venice and Venice Lido, in 1889.
A coat of arms from the turn of the 17th century, featuring a plague doctor and, presumably, the Swiss physician Theodore Zwinger III.
These 19th-century imaginings offer a colorful twist on the typically dour garb.
A Venetian doctor, on the left, and one from Marseille.

Images from web – Google Reasearch. Article in collaboration: Leo and Danijel.

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