Plague doctor costume

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Paul Fürst, engraving, c. 1656, of a plague doctor of Marseilles (introduced as 'Dr Beak of Rome'). His nose-case is filled with herbal material to keep off the plague.[1]

The clothing worn by plague doctors was intended to protect them from airborne diseases during outbreaks of bubonic plague in Europe.[2] It is often seen as a symbol of death and disease.[3] However, the costume was worn by a comparatively small number of late Renaissance and early modern physicians studying and treating plague patients.[4]


Plague doctor outfit from Germany (17th century)

The costume consists of a leather hat, mask with glass eyes and a beak, stick to remove clothes of a plague victim, gloves, waxed linen robe, boots. [5]

The typical mask had glass openings for the eyes and a curved beak shaped like a bird's beak with straps that held the beak in front of the doctor's nose.[6] The mask had two small nose holes and was a type of respirator which contained aromatic items.[7] The beak could hold dried flowers (commonly roses and carnations), herbs (commonly lavender and peppermint), camphor, or a vinegar sponge,[8][9] as well as juniper berry, ambergris, cloves, labdanum, myrrh, and storax.[10] The purpose of the mask was to keep away bad smells such as decaying bodies and the smell taken with the most caution was known as miasma, a noxious form of "bad air". This was thought to be the principal cause of the disease.[11] Doctors believed the herbs would counter the "evil" smells of the plague and prevent them from becoming infected.[12]

The wide-brimmed leather hat indicated their profession.[13][14] Doctors used wooden canes in order to point out areas needing attention and to examine patients without touching them.[15] The canes were also used to keep people away[16][17] and to remove clothing from plague victims without having to touch them.[18]


The exact origins of the costume are unclear, as most depictions come from satirical writings and political cartoons.[19] The beaked plague doctor inspired costumes in Italian theatre as a symbol of general horror and death, though some historians insist that the plague doctor was originally fictional and inspired the real plague doctors later.[20] Depictions of the beaked plague doctor rose in response to superstition and fear about the unknown source of the plague.[21] Often, these plague doctors were the last thing a patient would see before death; therefore, the doctors were seen as a foreboding of death.

The garments were first mentioned by a physician to King Louis XIII of France, Charles de L'Orme, who wrote in a 1619 plague outbreak in Paris that he developed an outfit made of Moroccan goat leather, including boots, breeches, a long coat, hat, and gloves[22][23] modeled after a soldier's canvas gown which went from the neck to the ankle.[24][25][26] The garment was impregnated with similar fragrant items as the mask.[27] L'Orme wrote that the mask had a "nose half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and to carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the drugs enclosed further along in the beak."[28]

The Genevan physician, Jean-Jacques Manget, in his 1721 work Treatise on the Plague written just after the Great Plague of Marseille, describes the costume worn by plague doctors at Nijmegen in 1636–1637. The costume forms the frontispiece of Manget's 1721 work.[29] Their robes, leggings, hats, and gloves were also made of Morocco leather.[30] This costume was also worn by plague doctors during the Naples Plague of 1656, which killed 145,000 people in Rome and 300,000 in Naples.[31][32]


A beaked Venetian carnival mask bearing a picture of a plague doctor, and the inscription Medico della Peste ("Plague doctor") beneath the right eye

The costume is also associated with a commedia dell'arte character called Il Medico della Peste (lit.: The Plague Doctor), who wears a distinctive plague doctor's mask.[33] The Venetian mask was normally white, consisting of a hollow beak and round eye-holes covered with clear glass, and is one of the distinctive masks worn during the Carnival of Venice.[34]

Steampunk, Cosplay, and Modern Fictional Plague Doctor Characters[edit]

Plague doctor costumes have seen a growing popularity in pop culture, film, television, and cosplay, though the plague doctor character has changed quite a bit from the historical plague doctors of Germany and Venice. The historical plague doctor costume was adapted into a series of 13 fictional characters by sculptural artist Tom Banwell beginning in 2010.[35]

"Dr. Beulenpest" created by artist Tom Banwell was the first steampunk plague doctor character.

"Dr. Beulenpest" was the first steampunk plague doctor character ever created. [36] "Dr. Beulenpest" was featured in an exhibit at the Hangaram Design Museum in Seoul, South Korea entitled "Steampunk. The Art of Victorian Futurism".[37] Many of the features commonly associated with the plague doctor costume were originally featured in Tom Banwell's sculptures but came to define the modern-day plague doctor costume and character. "Dr. Beulenpest" was the first plague doctor mask to be made from black leather, common among modern-day plague doctor costumes although historical plague doctor masks were brown or white. "Dr. Beulenpest" was the first plague doctor mask, fictional or historical, to feature rivets in its construction.[38] In particular, the "nasal strip" as Tom called it when he created it (the strip of leather that runs down the ridge of the beak and has rivets along each side to attach the leather panels) is a common feature of many modern-day fictional plague doctor characters and costumes.[39][40] "Dr. Beulenpest" was the first plague doctor character to be imagined outside of the era of the European Black Plague. "Dr. Beulenpest" was the first plague doctor to feature goggle-like metal rings around the eye lenses and a metal beak tip.[41]

Covid 19[edit]

During the international Coronavirus pandemic beginning in 2020, the plague doctor costume grew in popularity due to its relevance to the pandemic, with news reports of plague doctor-costumed individuals in public places showing photos of people wearing Tom Banwell's plague doctor costumes.[42][43]

See also[edit]

  • Gas mask – Protection from inhaling airborne pollutants and toxic gases
  • Hazmat suit – Protective suit against chemical, bacteriological, and nuclear risks
  • Medical gown – Type of personal protective equipment worn by medical professionals
  • N95 respirator – Particulate respirator meeting the N95 standard
  • NBC suit – Type of military personal protective equipment



  1. ^ Füssli's image is reproduced and discussed in Robert Fletcher, A tragedy of the Great Plague of Milan in 1630 (Baltimore: The Lord Baltimore Press, 1898), p. 16–17.
  2. ^
    • Pommerville (Body Systems), p. 15
    • Bauer, p. 145
    • Byfield, p. 26
    • Glaser, pp. 33-34
  3. ^ Andrew Whalen On 3/19/20 at 1:31 PM EDT (2020-03-19). "Are surgical masks the new plague masks? A history of the not-always-helpful ways we've reacted to pandemics". Newsweek. Retrieved 2021-03-09.
  4. ^ Black, Winston; May 2020, All About History 19 (19 May 2020). "Plague doctors: Separating medical myths from facts". Retrieved 2021-03-09.
  5. ^ * Pommerville (Body Systems), p. 15
    • Bauer, p. 145
    • Byfield, p. 26
    • Glaser, pp. 33-34
  6. ^ Ellis, p. 202
  7. ^ *Time-Life Books, pp. 140, 158
    • Dolan, p. 139
    • Ellis, p. 202
    • Paton
    • Martin, p. 121
    • Sherman, p. 162
    • Turner, p. 180
    • Mentzel, p. 86
    • Glaser, p. 36
    • Hall, p. 67
    • Infectious Diseases Society of America, Volume 11, p. 819
    • Grolier, p. 700
  8. ^ O'Donnell, p. 135
  9. ^ Stuart, p. 15
  10. ^ Byrne 2006, p. 170.
  11. ^ "Plagues of the Past". Science in the News. 2014-12-31. Retrieved 2021-03-09.
  12. ^ Irvine Loudon, Western Medicine: An Illustrated History (Oxford, 2001), p. 189.
  13. ^ * Pommerville (Body Systems), p. 15
    • Bauer, p. 145
    • Byfield, p. 26
    • Glaser, pp. 33-34
  14. ^ Center for Advanced Study in Theatre Arts, p. 83
  15. ^ "Imagery From the History of Medicine". Retrieved 2021-03-09.
  16. ^ Association, American Medical (1900). JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. American Medical Association.
  17. ^ Byrne 2008, p. 505.
  18. ^ Pommerville, p. 9
  19. ^ "17th-century Plague Doctors Were the Stuff of Nightmares". HowStuffWorks. 2020-02-12. Retrieved 2021-03-09.
  20. ^ Black, Winston; May 2020, All About History 19 (19 May 2020). "Plague doctors: Separating medical myths from facts". Retrieved 2021-03-09.
  21. ^ Mussap, J.C. (2019). "The Plague Doctor of Venice". Internal Medicine Journal. 49 (5): 673. doi:10.1111/time.14285. PMID 31083805. S2CID 153311347 – via Google Scolar. {{cite journal}}: Check |url= value (help)
  22. ^ Black, Winston; May 2020, All About History 19 (19 May 2020). "Plague doctors: Separating medical myths from facts". Retrieved 2021-03-09.
  23. ^ Timbs, p. 360
  24. ^ Boeckl, p. 15
  25. ^ Carmichael, A.G. (2009), "Plague, Historical", in Schaechter, Moselio (ed.), Encyclopedia of Microbiology (3rd ed.), Elsevier, pp. 58–72, doi:10.1016/B978-012373944-5.00311-4, ISBN 9780123739445
  26. ^ Iqbal Akhtar Khan (May 2004). "Plague: the dreadful visitation occupying the human mind for centuries". Transactions of the Royal Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene. 98 (5): 270–277. doi:10.1016/S0035-9203(03)00059-2. PMID 15109549. Charles Delorme (1584—1678), personal physician to King Louis XIII, was credited with introducing special protective clothing for plague doctors during the epidemic in Marseilles. It consisted of a beak-like mask supplied with aromatic substance, presumed to act as filter against the odour emanating from the patients, and a loose gown covering the normal clothing. On occasions, a drifting fragrance such as camphor was used.
  27. ^ Time-Life Books, p. 158 Beak Doctor: during the Black Plague, a medical man who wore a bird mask to protect himself against infection. Black plague definition: In 14th-century Europe, the victims of the "black plague" had bleeding below the skin (subcutaneous hemorrhage) which made darkened ("blackened") their bodies. Black plague can lead to "black death" characterized by gangrene of the fingers, toes, and nose. Black plague is caused by a bacterium (Yersinia pestis) which is transmitted to humans from infected rats by the oriental rat flea..
  28. ^ Vidal, Pierre; Tibayrenc, Myrtille; Gonzalez, Jean-Paul (2007). "Chapter 40: Infectious disease and arts". In Tibayrenc, Michel (ed.). Encyclopedia of Infectious Diseases: Modern Methodologies. John Wiley & Sons. p. 680. ISBN 9780470114193.
  29. ^ Manget, p. 3
  30. ^ Timbs, p. 360
  31. ^ The Plague Doctor
  32. ^ Christine M. Boeckl, Images of plague and pestilence: iconography and iconology (Truman State University Press, 2000), pp. 15, 27.
  33. ^ Killinger, p. 95
  34. ^ Carnevale
  35. ^
  36. ^
  37. ^
  38. ^ timestamp 8:12
  39. ^
  40. ^
  41. ^
  42. ^
  43. ^

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External links[edit]

Media related to Plague doctors at Wikimedia Commons