Starting in the fourteenth century, Europe weathered an onslaught of infectious diseases, commonly known as the Black Plague. At the time, the prevailing theory of disease transmission was miasma theory, which explained that poisonous vapors or “bad air” caused illness (T., 1965). As such, doctors who cared for victims of the plague, or plague doctors, needed a way to protect themselves from the miasma surrounding their plague-stricken patients. In the interest of addressing this need, Charles de l’Orme, a physician to both French King Louis XIII and to the Medici family of Italy, created the “plague doctor costume” in 1619. It minimized a plague doctor’s contact with diseased air (Rosenhek, 2011).
The plague doctor costume consisted of several pieces, all of which minimized the wearer’s exposure to the miasma, though some aspects of the costume had secondary roles. Plague doctors wore long overcoats and leather pants, along with gloves, boots, a hat, and a full-face mask that curved into a beak-like shape and featured glass domes over the eyes. All parts of the ensemble were coated with wax. The beak of the mask was stuffed full of “fresh herbs and dried petals”, which sweetened and thus cleansed the foul air that was sickening patients (Stoddart, 1990). The hat, in addition to providing protection from the air, designated that the wearer was a doctor. Doctors also carried wooden canes, used for both inspecting patients and warding off assault by desperate patients (Mingren, 2017). It is unclear what physicians wore prior to l’Orme’s creation of the costume, however, many doctors throughout Europe adopted the costume.
The costume had a variety of impacts, and characteristics of it correlate with aspects of modern healthcare apparel. At the time of the Black Plague, the protective costume allowed plague doctors to attempt treatment for even the most ill of patients. Using their wooden cane, physicians could “safely” interact with these patients. Doctors assumed that the beak of the costume’s mask, with its purifying potpourri, would protect them from the noxious air, affording patients in all stages of disease access to medical care (Stoddart, 1990). The hat, which indicated the wearer was a physician, is correlated with the white coats sported by physicians today: physicians wear white coats for “easy recognition by colleagues and patients” (Baron, 1991). While a correlation does not imply causation, both technologies serve the same purpose, just at differing points in history. More strongly related, however, are the beaked mask of the plague doctor costume and the modern surgical mask. An article in Clinical Microbiology and Infection concludes, “the equivalent of the famous Plague Doctor mask…is the white surgical mask worn during recent epidemics” (Falagas, 2009).
In sum, the plague doctor costume’s design protected physicians from diseased air, allowing them to better treat patients suffering from the Black Plague. Its various components exemplified this design and served as preambles to the apparel of modern medical professionals.
1: Engraving of a plague doctor (Furst)
Baron, R. F. (1991). Why do hospital doctors wear white coats? Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, 43.
Falagas, G. P. (2009). Psychosocial consequences of infectious diseases. Clinical Microbiology and Infection, 743-747.
Furst, P. (1721). Dr. Beaky of Rome.
Mingren, W. (2017, November 27). The Secrets Behind the Plague Doctor’s Terrifying Costume. Retrieved from Ancient Origins: https://www.ancient-origins.net/artifacts-ancient-technology/secrets-behind-plague-doctor-s-terrifying-costume-009201
Rosenhek, J. (2011, October). Doctors of the Black Death. Retrieved from Doctor’s Review: http://www.doctorsreview.com/history/doctors-black-death/
Stoddart, D. M. (1990). The scented ape: the biology and culture of human odour. Cambridge University Press.
T., G. L. (1965). THE PLAGUE DOCTOR. Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 276.