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Plague Doctors

Updated on August 16, 2017

The man above is not an actor playing a role of a vulture. He is a doctor, or more specifically a plague doctor. Now a question will be hovering in your mind, "why is this guy dressed like a bird?". To answer this question I have come up with this article.

The Great Plague of London which killed up to 10000 people.
The Great Plague of London which killed up to 10000 people. | Source

A Brief History


In medieval times plagues were very frequent due to bad hygiene, improper sewage system, and primitive knowledge of medicine. An epidemic like the "Black Death" killed almost 60% of Europe's population. It was necessary that the Government hired doctors to look after the plague victims.

Thus the need of plague doctors was born. Plague doctors were normally not highly trained surgeons or physicians. They often were doctors running unsuccessful medical careers, newly trained physicians, or struggling practitioners. As they were hired by the government, they attended everyone who needed them regardless of caste, creed, and financial status. However, some doctors were known to charge extra for special treatment or false cure.

Doctors as Public Servants

These plague doctors visited every nook and corner of the affected cities, villages, and towns. So apart from attending the casualties, they also kept track of the death toll.

Autopsy | Source

Special Privileges

These plague doctors were pretty valuable, and that is why they have received special privileges such as, they were allowed to perform an autopsy on the plague victim which would help them to research for the plague's cure. The plague doctors were so scarce that once the city of Orvieto hired Matteo fu Angelo (a plague doctor) for four times the normal pay of a doctor.

A Plague Doctor
A Plague Doctor | Source

The Unusual Costume

The dress of a plague doctor varied. However, the iconic idea of the beak doctor is credited to Charles De Lomes. In 1619 he adopted the idea of full head to toe garment which is inspired by soldier's armor.

  • The suit consisted of a long leather or waxed-canvas coat. The coat extended from neck to ankle.
  • The Gloves, the brimmed hat, and the boots were manufactured from waxed leather. The wide-brimmed hat worn by the doctors indicated their profession.
  • The mask had a long beak and eye openings covered with lenses.

Rose Petals
Rose Petals | Source
Mint Leaves
Mint Leaves | Source
Juniper Berries
Juniper Berries | Source
  • The beak cavity measured about half a foot in length and had two vent holes near the nostrils. The beak was padded with aromatic items. The scented materials included:
  1. Rose Petals
  2. Juniper Berry.
  3. Lemon Balm.
  4. Mint Leaves.
  5. Cloves.
  6. Laudanum.
  • These Items protected the doctors from the putrid air which was supposed to cause infection (according to miasmatic theory).

What is the miasmatic theory?

It is an obsolete medical theory. According to this theory some diseases, such as cholera, chlamydia, and the black death, were thought to be caused by polluted air. However, when bacteria theory was formed, the miasmatic theory was disapproved.

  • Another feature of this costume was a wooden cane to examine the victims.

Bloodletting is the withdrawal of blood from patient's body as a cure to a disease or as a preventive measure.
Bloodletting is the withdrawal of blood from patient's body as a cure to a disease or as a preventive measure. | Source

Methods of Treatment

The most common practice was of bloodletting. Other remedies included putting frog or leeches on buboes.

Bubo (plural-buboes) is a swelling of the lymph node. Bubonic plague caused buboes which resembled huge blisters appearing under an armpit, in the groin, or on the neck.

Doctors used canes to examine patients without touching them. With their cane, doctors pointed out any area which needed attention, they removed clothing from plague victims, and take patient's pulse. Some patients thought that the plague was a wrath of God, and asked doctors to whip them with the cane as a penalty for their sins.


The plague doctors were not allowed to interact freely with the general public. There was a risk that they were carrying diseases, so after the epidemic ended the plague doctors were quarantined.


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    • profile image

      Sarrah Aliasghar 

      15 months ago

      Look like vultures yet they were ray of hope at that time.

      Elaborately described


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