The primary duties of a plague doctor were to treat and cure victims of any plague, and to bury the dead. Plague doctors were also responsible for tallying the number of casualties in public records and testifying to the wills of the dead. Plague doctors could even be asked to conduct autopsies, to better understand the plague.
As plague doctors were in contact with victims of a fatal disease, they were at grave risk of catching the plague themselves, and had to protect themselves. So the plague doctor mask became one of the most recognisable symbols of the past pandemics. But while plague doctors have been pursuing their trade since the Middle Ages, it was only during the C17th that they started getting smarter.
In 1619 the idea of a plague suit and beaked mask was invented by Dr Charles de l’Orme, chief physician of 3 French kings (including Louis XIV), and of Gaston d'Orléans, son of Marie de Médici. His design was based around miasma theory, the contemporary theory that illness spread through deadly rising vapours. By the time the 1656 Plague struck, tragically killing almost half a million people in Rome and Naples, his prototype was improved and used routinely by all plague doctors. In fact by 1656 plague doctors were actually mandated, by the contracts they signed with municipal councils, to wear the outfits.
The suit minimised exposure of the skin with a long over-coat. The neckline of this overcoat was tucked behind the plague doctor’s mask and extended all the way down to the feet. The entire piece of clothing was waxed with suet, to repel the plague from the doctor, or draw it away from the victim. In order to protect the lower body from infection, l’Orme’s suit had a pair of goat leather breeches beneath the overcoat. And leather gloves protected the hands.
A wide brimmed hat was worn on the plague doctor’s head, made of leather to indicate that its wearer was a doctor. Although the hat served a symbolic function, it may have provided some protection by keeping some bacteria away.
Colour copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel/Beak, by Paul Fürst, c1656.
Note wax-canvas garment, hat, large crystal glasses, gloves, boots and cane.
Sincet l’Orme’s plague suit was to protect from miasma, it was uncertain how effective the outfit could ever be. Clearly many plague doctors died from their patients’ plague, so it was likely that l’Orme’s invention did little to protect the doctors, [except to offer some protection against germs].
The plague doctor mask was bird-like in shape, with a long beak and the round eye-holes covered with clear glass. Some people believed that the plague was spread by birds. So the disease might have been removed from a patient by transferring it to the garment. More likely the mask had a utilitarian function, as the beak was packed with strong, aromatic spices like mint or rose petals. These were meant to ward off the disease because people believed miasma spread the disease.
In any case the plague mask became well known because of its use in theatre. The beaked physician figure became a character (Medico della Pesta) in commedia dell’arte-professional theatre and the mask is still worn in the Carnival of Venice. Plague doctors were such a common sight in Venice carnivals that this symbol of mortality became central in the annual celebration of life.
And the plague doctor carried a wooden cane, for several reasons. He could use the cane to examine his patient without touching, take a patient’s pulse or to remove his clothing. And to issue instructions eg commanding the use of urine baths, purgatives or stimulants. The cane could also be used to indicate to the victim’s family members where to move the patient or body. Finally the cane could be used to protect the doctor against patient assaults.
See a plague doctor image that was a painted coat of arms belonging to Swiss Dr Theodore Zwinger III (1658–1724). He was a descendant of the very knowledgeable Swiss Dr Theodore Zwinger I (1533–88), the humanist who wrote Theatrum Humanae Vitae.
Theodore Zwinger III: coat of arms with portrait, c1656
The Public Domain Review
Eventually it was learned that the plagues were caused by bacteria that could be transmitted from animals to humans (eg flea bites) and inhalation of infectious droplets from coughing people with pneumonic plague. Still, I imagine that terrible memories of the plagues over the centuries are being relived in Italian cities during the current coronavirus pandemic.