Who Were Plague Doctors? Why Did They Wear Bird Masks

John | 11 - 09 - 2020
Who Were Plague Doctors? Why Did They Wear Bird Masks

Plague doctors remained a symbol of horror for hundreds of years. Featured in all forms of arts, paintings, and video games, these birdlike professionals were famous in the public. Despite the popularity, there are many misconceptions about plague doctors. 

When Did Plague Doctors Exist?

Bubonic plague outbreak was widespread in the 14th century. Treating the deadly disease became a medical emergency during the time. Plague doctors adapted the famous robe, mask, and hat-combo that associates with the plague. The medical treatment didn’t vary too much from the early modern counterparts, but the plague doctor outfit of the 17th and 18th centuries had a new approach to dealing with the disease. 

Plague Doctor History

There were several physicians and doctors during the medieval period. Physicians received university training while surgeons did not have any formal education and they were considered inferior. Surgeons in the medieval world were often associated with barbers and they were allowed to pull teeth and let blood. Apothecaries were responsible for dispensing drugs and herbs during the Middle ages. Women were also knowledgeable and all the doctors were men who were familiar with natural remedies and prepared tonics and medicines in their homes. 

1. Who Designed Plague Mask?
  • A. Charles de Lorme
  • B. Albert Schweitzer
  • C. Dominique Jean Larrey
  • D. Jean-Martin Charcot

During the outbreak of the plague, a new type of doctor evolved. They were specific physicians who were famously known as plague doctors. They were specialized in plague treatment and prevention. Plague doctors were hired by villages in the 14th century throughout the next four centuries whenever the plague popped up. 

In the 17th century, the plague doctors started wearing protective gear/uniforms to protect themselves from their patients. Charles de L’Orme designed and invented the concept of long, dark robe worn with boots, gloves, and a hat in 1619. 

Why Did Plague Doctors Wear Bird Masks?

They wore plague uniforms to keep the entire body covered. The outer layer of the costume was made of goat leather coated with wax. Under the uniform was the blouse that was tied to their boots. 

The plague masks were often associated with air purity. During the 17th and 18th centuries, people believed that polluted air could result in the spread of this deadly plague. Eye holes of the plague masks were fitted with glass pieces so doctors could see, the long noses on the mask were filled with aromatic herbs, camphor, cloves, rose petals, and drugs to filter the air. The herbs also helped doctors to avoid the smell from dead bodies. Plague doctors wore hats to indicate that the person was in fact a doctor. The hats were more symbolic than functional. It, however, kept some bacteria away. 

Plague doctors used canes for a lot of practical purposes. They treated and helped in the prevention of plague. They used a cane to handle the patients without touching them directly. They also used a cane to protect themselves from desperate patients and assist helpers to dispose of the body of dead patients. 

What Did the Plague Doctors Do?

Plague doctors played a very crucial role and made beneficial contributions. They had a volume of detailed information about their patients. They kept registers of the number of victims for public records, documented people’s last wishes, and also testified witness wills. Their service to the public was beyond medical care. 

Though the medieval period is not famous for medical advancements, plague doctors were asked to dissect the body to yield forensic and anatomical information to determine the cause of the death and investigate more on the mysterious disease that was killing people quickly. 

After serving as a plague doctor for a period of time, they spend at least 40 days in isolation and separated themselves from the rest of the population. How well do you know the meaning of quarantine and isolation? Take our quarantine quiz to find out!

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