Why did 17th-century plague doctors wear peculiar beaked masks?

What were plague doctors and why did some of them wear beaked masks? With their long cloaks and grotesque bird-like masks, these medical professionals made for a disconcerting sight in 17th-century Europe. Here's a quick guide to their strange protective clothing...

c1656: A plague doctor in protective clothing. The beak mask held spices thought to purify air, while the wand was used to avoid touching patients. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

With a long cloak and grotesque bird-like mask, the European ‘plague doctor’ was a disconcerting sight. The eccentric headpiece served as a kind of primitive ‘gas mask’ for medical practitioners in 17th-century Europe, designed to protect its wearer from the foul odours associated with the plague. Physicians completed the look with a wide-brimmed hat, long coat, and wooden cane (which enabled them to examine patients without getting too close).

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The first description of such a get-up dates to 1619, from Charles de Lorme, a physician to the Medici family: “The nose [is] half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume”. The hooked snout contained substances including lavender, camphor, vinegar sponge or laudanum, which were thought to ward off the ‘pestilence’ in the bad air.

While the protective clothing is well-documented in images of the plague from the 17th-century onwards, particularly in Italy, it was not necessarily a fixture for medical persons in London. Matt Brown, in an article for HistoryExtra, writes that “there is no good evidence that the costume was ever worn” in the English capital. “It can’t be entirely ruled out, but one would have thought that such a distinctive ensemble would have made it onto the pages of Pepys’s diary, or some other first-hand account of the plague.”

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This Q&A was taken from the March 2015 issue of BBC History Revealed magazine