How the Plague Doctor’s Mask Worked
A deadly and vicious outbreak of the bubonic plague afflicted Italy in the middle of the 17th century. It spread quickly through Rome, Genoa, and Naples, leaving about 200 to 400 thousand dead bodies in its wake. The plague's origin in Italy can’t be fully determined, although some scholars suspect that Naples was its epicentre. Even with news of the disease, Naples’s restrictions and precautions were lacking and its people remained carefree — a scene all too familiar today.
The state employed special plague doctors tasked with only caring for plague victims to cure the thousands that were sick.
To protect themselves, the doctors wore quite an iconic mask and robe. But were they any effective?
What was the outfit’s rationale?
Early medical theories about the plague determined that “evil smells” and “bad air” caused the infection. While this theory is now obsolete, it is referred to in medical literature as the “miasma theory.”
Since then, doctors have confirmed that the bubonic plague's true cause was a bacterium called “Yersinia Pestis” found on fleas that spread across Europe through rats.
An unlucky victim would first contract the flu and report painful and swelling lymph nodes. After a few days, the patient commonly contracts gangrene and would periodically vomit blood. In just a week after infection, the patient could expire.
So given their theory, doctors did their best to protect themselves from the afflictive odors.
The most iconic piece of the costume is the doctor’s birdlike mask. It had a long beak to filter foul smells using different dried flowers and spices. Their beaks were makeshift respirators filled with roses, lavender, and even peppermint to keep the contagion away.
Their robes would also be tucked into the mask and made with Moroccan leather. This and their gloves would prevent direct contact with the infected patient. To prevent the smells from sticking to their clothes, their entire outfit was also waxed.
Along with the set were a cane and a wide-brimmed hat. The hat was mostly used to distinguish them as professionals, the cane allowed them to give instructions and touch patients without physical contact.
Was it effective?
One priest recorded that the doctors working in plague houses didn’t get infected with the plague. He specifically noted that their clothes prevented fleas from jumping into their skin but ultimately concluded that the costume’s anti-flea properties were a convenience rather than prevention.
What can be inferred from the priest’s account is that the costume suits were indeed effective, but for reasons other than “bad smell prevention.” Since the doctors were all covered up, fleas carrying the plague had little opportunity to infect them.
Unfortunately, while the plague doctor’s suit was somewhat effective in combating the plague, the same cannot be said for his treatments.
Doctors often bled their patients hoping that it would rid them of the foul smells. They did this through bloodletting and the application of leeches. At times, even spiders and toads were prescribed for more magical than medical reasons.
Although their efforts were admirable as they placed themselves at risk, plague doctors did little to help their patients. Even their appearance was horrifying to victims since they often signalled an impending death from the plague.
A similar deadly plague afflicts our lives and communities in the present. While little was known before, medical knowledge has exponentially improved since then.
So just like the plague doctors from the 16th century, for your sake and others, I hope you wear a mask.