Things You Didn’t Know About Plague Doctors

You might have recently seen the news story about a person dressed as a 17th century plague doctor causing alarm on their daily walk.

Historically the masked doctors treated plague victims, believing that the large beaked masks offered protection from infection. But this UK resident hasn’t been a welcome sight for his neighbours who seemed alarmed by his costumed walks. If the thought of a large beaked character roaming your neighbourhood during lockdown sends a shiver down your spine – don’t worry; there are plenty more ways to get your heart pounding while sheltering at home. Of course, we always recommend a classic horror film, but you could also try the exciting games available at .

This individual prompted fear from neighbours, with local police stating that they want to give “words of advice” to the person inside the creepy costume. But in the 17th century, were plague doctors regarded as a comfort, or a source of terror? Let’s delve into this interesting slice of history with things you didn’t know about plague doctors.

Circa 1656, A plague doctor in protective clothing. The beak mask held spices thought to purify air, the wand was used to avoid touching patients. Original Artwork: Engraving by Paul Furst after J Colombina (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

It was all about scent

As unpleasant as it is to contemplate, the combination of infected people and the mounting number of corpses made for an alarming stench during the height of the plague. Scientists reasoned that the disease was being spread through the breathing of these noxious fumes, and that protection from the smell would keep doctors safe from being infected. This is the reason for the beaked shape of the mask, the front section was packed with sweet smelling flowers to ward off the rotting smell of the air.


It could be a violent job

Plague doctors often carried canes, not to aid in walking but as a weapon. Sometimes the cane was used to move bodies, or to test if an unresponsive person was alive. But often they were used to defend the doctors against desperate patients, angry family members or mobs.

They were an early example of universal healthcare

Until the peak of the bubonic plague, medical care was determined by wealth. The nobles had access to private doctors, while the poor were unable to seek treatment while trapped in crowded and unsanitary living spaces. The employment of plague doctors across Europe saw an early example of a more equal healthcare system.

These doctors did not have clients, they were hired by local councils who paid them a salary to treat all plague victims, dispose of the dead, and to report on the infection rates.

The costumes were designed by Charles de L’Orme

The French royal physician Charles de L’Orme was an early pioneer of the suits worn by plague doctors. Although protective suits had existed in Italy, it was the French who invented the beak structure and the idea of sealing off the entire body. The outer layer of the costume was made of goat leather and often coated in wax so that it could be easily cleaned. Underneath, the doctor wore a blouse that tied to his boots.

The treatments were gruesome

Plague doctors operated in a time without a modern understanding of medical hygiene, and with no effective scientific treatments. Many doctors theorised about how the disease spread, and how to treat it. It was thought that a toxic imbalance contributed, so standerd treatments of the era such as blood-letting and leeches were used.

Some patients near death were coated in mercury in an effort to lessen spread. Religious leaders also suggested that efforts to please God would ward off sickness and encouraged the public to whip themselves. Some people would have the plague doctor do the whipping for them.

We hope you found these facts about plague doctors interesting. Let us know – how would you react if one started patrolling your neighbourhood?