Plague Doctors

Today, with the coronavirus now officially declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization, images of hazmat suits and medical professionals in full-body scrubs and surgical masks are flooding the news. The sight of so many in these outfits makes many of us more than a little anxious — but we do recognize them as effective attire for limiting the spread of disease. Indeed, there’s now a global surgical mask shortage because of the number of people outside the medical profession who’ve purchased these items.

In the seventeenth century, during the epidemics of bubonic plague that swept western Europe, plague doctors (who exclusively treated the infected) took to wearing a very different kind of costume to protect them from the miasma, or “bad air”, then believed to carry disease. This fanciful-looking costume typically consisted of a head-to-toe leather or wax-canvas garment; large crystal glasses; and a long snout or bird beak, containing aromatic spices (such as camphor, mint, cloves, and myrrh), dried flowers (such as roses or carnations), or a vinegar sponge. The strong smells of these items — sometimes set aflame for added advantage — were meant to combat the contagious miasma that the costume itself could not protect against.

Plague doctors also carried, the scholar G. L. Townsend chronicles, a “wand with which to issue instructions”, such as ordering disease-stricken houses filled with spiders or toads “to absorb the air” and commanding the infected to inhale “bottled wind” or take urine baths, purgatives, or stimulants. These same wands were used to take a patient’s pulse, to remove his clothing, and also to ward off the infected when they came too close. (A potent tool for social distancing if ever there was one!)

Doctor Schnabel [i.e Dr Beak], a plague doctor in seventeenth-century Rome, published by Paul Fürst, ca. 1656

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