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 mostly worn by 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, and boots. [2]

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.[5] The mask had two small nose holes and was a type of respirator which contained aromatic items.[6] The beak could hold dried flowers (commonly roses and carnations), herbs (commonly lavender and peppermint), camphor, or a vinegar sponge,[7][8] as well as juniper berry, ambergris, cloves, labdanum, myrrh, and storax.[9] The purpose of the mask was to keep away bad smells, such as the smell of decaying bodies. 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.[10] Doctors believed the herbs would counter the "evil" smells of the plague and prevent them from becoming infected.[11] Though these particular theories about the plague's nature were incorrect, it is likely that the costume actually did afford the wearer some protection. The garments covered the body, shielding against splattered blood, lymph, and cough droplets, and the waxed robe prevented fleas (the true carriers of the plague) from touching the body or clinging to the linen.[12]

The wide-brimmed leather hat indicated their profession.[2][13] Doctors used wooden canes in order to point out areas needing attention and to examine patients without touching them.[14] The canes were also used to keep people away[15][16] and to remove clothing from plague victims without having to touch them.[17]


The exact origins of the costume are unclear, as most depictions come from satirical writings and political cartoons.[18] An early reference to plague doctors wearing masks is in 1373 when Johannes Jacobi recommends their use but he offers no physical description of them. [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 Lorme, 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] De Lorme 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] However, recent research has revealed that strong caveats must be applied with regard to De Lorme's assertions.[29]

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.[30] Their robes, leggings, hats, and gloves were also made of Morocco leather.[31] 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.[32][33]


A beaked Venetian carnival mask bearing a picture of a plague doctor, and the inscription Il Medico della Peste ("The 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.[34] 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.[35]


Posing with variations on plague masks in New Orleans during the April 2020 pandemic shutdown

During the COVID-19 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 and photos of people wearing plague doctor costumes appearing in social media.[36][37]

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. ^ a b c
    • 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.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ Black, Winston; May 2020, All About History 19 (19 May 2020). "Plague doctors: Separating medical myths from facts". Retrieved 2021-03-09.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Ellis, p. 202
  6. ^ *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
  7. ^ O'Donnell, p. 135
  8. ^ Stuart, p. 15
  9. ^ Byrne 2006, p. 170.
  10. ^ "Plagues of the Past". Science in the News. 2014-12-31. Retrieved 2021-03-09.
  11. ^ Irvine Loudon, Western Medicine: An Illustrated History (Oxford, 2001), p. 189.
  12. ^ Smith, Kiona. "A Look Behind the Plague Doctor Mask". Forbes. Retrieved 15 February 2023.
  13. ^ Center for Advanced Study in Theatre Arts, p. 83
  14. ^ "Imagery From the History of Medicine". Retrieved 2021-03-09.
  15. ^ Association, American Medical (1900). JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association. American Medical Association.
  16. ^ Byrne 2008, p. 505.
  17. ^ Pommerville, p. 9
  18. ^ "17th-century Plague Doctors Were the Stuff of Nightmares". HowStuffWorks. 2020-02-12. Retrieved 2021-03-09.
  19. ^ Samuel Cohn's The Black Death Transformed: Disease and Culture in Early Renaissance Europe, pg 209
  20. ^ Black, Winston; May 2020, All About History 19 (19 May 2020). "Plague doctors: Separating medical myths from facts". Retrieved 2021-03-09.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  21. ^ Mussap, Christian J. (May 2019). "The Plague Doctor of Venice". Internal Medicine Journal. 49 (5): 671–676. doi:10.1111/imj.14285. ISSN 1445-5994. PMID 31083805.
  22. ^ Black, Winston; May 2020, All About History 19 (19 May 2020). "Plague doctors: Separating medical myths from facts". Retrieved 2021-03-09.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: numeric names: authors list (link)
  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 de Lorme (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. ^ Mattie, Herbert J. ""Men in Tights: Charles De Lorme (1584–1678) and the First Plague Costume"". European Journal for the History of Medicine and Health (published online ahead of print 2023).
  30. ^ Manget, p. 3
  31. ^ Timbs, p. 360
  32. ^ The Plague Doctor
  33. ^ Christine M. Boeckl, Images of plague and pestilence: iconography and iconology (Truman State University Press, 2000), pp. 15, 27.
  34. ^ Killinger, p. 95
  35. ^ Carnevale
  36. ^ "Coronavirus: Hellesdon plague doctor given advice by police". BBC News. 2020-05-04. Retrieved 2023-03-03.
  37. ^ "'Terrifying' plague doctor: U.K. police search for person in full 17th century outfit stalking suburb". nationalpost. Retrieved 2023-03-03.

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External links[edit]

Media related to Plague doctors at Wikimedia Commons