Plague doctors were medical practitioners who treated victims of the bubonic plague during the 17th and 18th centuries in Europe. They wore distinctive costumes that consisted of a long robe, a mask with a beak-like nose, and a hood or wide-brimmed hat. The costume was designed to protect them from the disease, but it also created a terrifying image that became associated with death and despair.
The origin of the plague doctor costume is not clear, but some historians trace it back to a French physician named Charles de Lorme, who adopted it in 1619. He believed that the plague was caused by bad air or miasma, and that the mask would filter out the harmful vapours. The mask also contained aromatic substances such as herbs, spices, or vinegar, which were thought to purify the air and prevent infection. The robe was made of waxed fabric or leather, which was supposed to prevent contact with bodily fluids. The hat was a symbol of the doctor’s profession and authority.
Plague doctors were not always trained or qualified physicians. Some were hired by cities or towns to treat the poor and collect the dead bodies. Others were charlatans who exploited the fear and desperation of the people. They often performed bloodletting, purging, or other ineffective or harmful treatments. They also charged high fees for their services and sometimes demanded bribes or favours from their patients.
Plague doctors played an important role in documenting and reporting the spread and impact of the plague. They kept records of the number of deaths, the symptoms of the disease, and the treatments they used. They also wrote letters, diaries, or treatises that described their experiences and observations. Some of these writings have survived and provide valuable insights into the history and culture of the plague era.
Plague doctors have become a popular subject of art, literature, and media. They are often depicted as sinister or mysterious figures who represent death, disease, or evil. They have also inspired various fictional characters, such as Edgar Allan Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death, Doctor Schnabel from Punch magazine, or SCP-049 from the SCP Foundation. Plague doctors are also a common choice for Halloween costumes or cosplay outfits.
© Colin Lawson Books