Amid the current pandemic, the debate continues about the efficacy of personal protective equipment, especially face masks. According to some, if they are not of the N95 grade quality, they may not be effective at protecting the wearer’s immune system from absorbing foreign airborne pathogens. Pandemics are not a new phenomenon, and how they are handled now is a sharp contrast to the yesteryear methods. However, one similarity involves the protective gear worn by today’s health care workers—our new plague doctors.
Needless to say, life in the 17th century was unimaginably awful—whether you were landed gentry or an aristocrat. A cut on the finger or a mild headache could develop into a deadly disease in minutes. On top of that, there were numerous plagues. At the time, Europe was in the grips of a faceless malady that caused blackened skin, hacking coughs, swollen lymph nodes, and bleeding. Those lucky enough would send for the doctor.
At the time, there was no profession less enviable than plague doctors. To put it into a modern-day perspective: imagine the stressors 21st-century healthcare workers face each day during a pandemic. Now think about how plague doctors managed without the benefit of modern medicine– not to mention dealing with a public mostly unfamiliar with basic hygiene. It’s no wonder that their methods of protection involved such extreme dress.
Despite being more respected in society than common leech mongers and snake oil salesmen, plague doctors were veritable outcasts, living on the periphery and constantly at risk of infection. And their foreboding uniforms—mostly leather shielding rubbed down with suet—surely did not help their terrifying public perception. Those on the receiving end of a visit from these ghoulish figures could expect the following:
Plague doctors wore a mask and leather hood over their heads, held in place by leather bands to keep away “bad air.” In the leather hood, eyeholes were cut and goggles worn overtop, resting on a long beak-like protrusion stuffed at the tip with theriac—a concoction made from herbs to ward off pollutants in the air. Some French doctors even set fire to their herbs, resulting in a mask that literally smoked from the “nostrils.”
To top it all off, the heavy costumes and boots usually resulted in a staggering gait that was made all the more sinister looking by the long stick they would carry (both for balance and protection from hysterical patients).
In addition to looking in on the dying, plague doctors often attended and performed autopsies. Realistically, given the absence of medication, these figures were mostly arbiters of fear rather than saviors. The uniform was based on an archaic and medieval understanding of disease—a means of protection rather than a necessary outfit for battling sickness.
Despite the ineffectiveness of the plague doctor’s costume, the sight of one still manages to elicit the same fears that were rampant throughout a diseased Europe more than 400 years ago. Fortunately, we will move ahead—and hopefully, never look back.