Plague doctor costume

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Paul Fürst, engraving, c. 1721, of a plague doctor of Marseilles (introduced as 'Dr Beaky 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 the 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 medieval and early modern physicians studying and treating plague patients.[4]


Plague doctor outfit from Germany (17th century)

The typical costume consists of an ankle-length overcoat and a bird-like beak mask, often filled with sweet or strong-smelling substances (commonly lavender), along with gloves, boots, a wide-brimmed hat, and an outer over-clothing garment.[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 (including roses and carnations), herbs (including 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, known as miasma, which were 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] and they 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 and was also worn by cats.[19] The beaked plague doctor may have first been a fictional character in theater and inspired doctors to use the look for their costumes.[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 to death.

The garments were first mentioned by 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 Genevese 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 Plague of 1656, which killed 145,000 people in Rome and 300,000 in Naples.[31][32]


A beaked Venetian carnival mask with 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]

See also[edit]

  • Gas mask – Protection from inhaling airborne pollutants and toxic gases
  • Hazmat suit – Protective suit against chemical, bacteriological, and nuclear risks
  • NBC suit – Type of military personal protective equipment
  • N95 mask
  • PPE gown



  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. "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. "Plague doctors: Separating medical myths from facts". Retrieved 2021-03-09.
  21. ^ Mussap, J.C. (2019). "The Plague Doctor of Venice" Check |url= value (help). Internal Medicine Journal. 49 (5): 673. doi:10.1111/imj.14285. PMID 31083805. S2CID 153311347 – via Google Scolar.
  22. ^ Black, Winston; May 2020, All About History 19. "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

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External links[edit]

Media related to Plague doctors at Wikimedia Commons