Plague Doctors—The Creepy And Ineffective Early Prelude To The Hazmat Suit

(Late medieval or Renaissance illustration of a plague doctor, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 

Doctor Charles de l’Orme (1584-1678) is credited with the iconic plague doctor’s ensemble that continues to unnerve modern viewers. It was designed to protect the wearer against plagues, such as the Black Death, which had spread throughout the Middle East, Europe and Russia by around 1352. Unfortunately for our cousins and ancestors from the past, the medieval doctors knew agonizingly little about the plague and its possible treatments.  

Instead, plague doctors of the time relied on observation and often-faulty assumptions, such as plague spreading through aroma or eyesight. Regardless of the medical inaccuracy of these medieval doctors, their assumptions eventually led to Charles de l’Orme’s beaked plague suit. Even though l’Orme’s suit is the first recorded beaked plague suit that historians have found on record, it is probable that earlier doctors manufactured their own personal makeshift suits in attempts to preserve their health. Yet, the modern perception of the plague doctor’s ensemble comes from l’Orme’s widely-used design.

The headwear of the plague doctor suit consisted of a large-brimmed leather hat and a beaked mask. The hat, even without the mask, was an article of clothing that identified the wearer as a doctor. Its wide brim supposedly was also designed to deflect bacteria. As for the mask, it fell down to the shoulders, and was constructed with glass eye sockets and a beak. The main purpose of the beak was to hold aromatic substances, which plague doctors believed could ward off the plague. Some favorite aromatics for the beak were pleasant herbs such as mint, or sponges soaked in perfume or vinegar.

Beneath the mask was a waxed gown or robe that fell down to the feet. Underneath the gown, the doctor wore leather breeches, made similarly to those used by fishermen. Most plague doctors also wore leather gloves. Concerning the footwear worn by these beaked doctors, accounts are vague, yet, like the rest of the outfit, the shoes or boots were probably waxed and similar in nature to a fisherman’s gear.

Most plague doctors carried long wooden canes that they used to lift the clothing or bedding covering plague victims and to give visual instructions to onlookers, such as family members. Also, many plague doctors carried long-handled spoons that they would use to ladle medicine (unfortunately, often ineffective or harmful) to the sick from a safe distance. Sadly, the plague suit proved to be ineffective at deflecting the plague, and many of the doctors died from the illness they were trying to contain.

 

(Image of a plague doctor – frontispiece from Jean-Jacques Manget, c. prior to 1721, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons)

 

Written by C. Keith Hansley.

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