The plague doctor mask is instantly recognizable with its elongated beak and emotionless expression. It’s not just an item from fiction and film, actual “doctors” wore these masks during a terrifying time in human history.
Plague Doctors were medical physicians who treated people suffering from the Black Death/bubonic plague (which killed between 75-200 million people in 1347-1351).
“When the rats and fleas carrying Yersinia pestis surreptitiously hitched a ride down the Silk Road with merchants and soldiers, no one could have predicted the toll this taste for spices and the latest in luxury goods would have on the population of Europe. After decimating tens of millions starting in China, it raced though central Asia and northern India. The bubonic plague made official landfall in Sicily in 1347. Within five years, it had spread to virtually all of Europe, Russia and the Middle East.” –“Doctors of the Black Death”, Rosenhek
There was no cure for the plague so their primary purpose was to keep record of how many people were infected and death tolls in an area. They were considered separate from “general practitioners” and didn’t offer any other medical aid or services, many were untrained as doctors or failed as medical professionals before accepting the role as “community plague doctor” or “empiric”.
Despite being paid by the townships they represented these “doctors” were often charlatans selling false hope and cures for additional payment from the families they treated (anyone want to call Ms.Paltrow or Dr.Oz? They’re missing out on their true calling!).
The mask itself has an elongated “beak” which was stuffed with aromatic items (straw, herbs, perfume, and spices) to mask the smell of death and purification, and which were also considered a protection from illness. The masks also featured glass eye covers to keep illness from entering that way. Often they wore a long cloak which was made of a wax treated fabric to keep stains and fluids from sinking in, brimmed black hat, gloves and a hood fastened close to the body, and carried a cane or walking stick to keep from direct contact with plague bearing patients. This outfit certainly didn’t lessen their creepy reputation!
Without a cure for the plague it swept through Europe killing millions and destroying the economy of vast areas. Desperate townships gave plague doctors the permission to complete autopsies in search for a cure, which were outlawed at the time.
As the grip of plague lessened on Europe and humanity returned to a less terrifying existence these masks have endured as a symbol of illness and fear. You can still find them in Carnivale masks of Venice, horror movies, fashion, and more.