What Plague Doctors Can Teach Us About Mask Wearing

The Black Death, currently the world’s topped ranked epidemic, killed between 70–200 million deaths. It raged in Europe, Asia, and North Africa between 1346–1353, with the population decreased between 30–60%.

Though the majority of deaths were everyday citizens — there was a majority of deaths that were the people who were the plague doctors. Living through COVID, having gone through a period of being told that wearing a mask helps, looking at the doctor’s uniform and how they thought it would protect them, makes me glad for PPE and masks in general.

The Plague Doctors

Image from Ranker

Prior to this time, plague doctors wore a variety of protective suits but it wasn’t until 1619 that a “uniform” was invented by Charles de l’Orme, the chief physician to Louis XIII.

De l’Orme wrote of costume that:
“The nose is half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume… Under the coat, we wear boots made in Moroccan leather (goat leather)…and a short-sleeved blouse in smooth skin…The hat and gloves are also made of the same skin…with spectacles over the eyes.”

Because they believed that smelly vapors could catch in the fibers of their clothing and transmit disease, de l’Orme designed a uniform of a waxed leather coat, leggings, boots, and gloves intended to deflect miasmas from head to toe. The suit was then coated in suet, hard white animal fat, to repel bodily fluids. The plague doctor also donned a prominent black hat to indicate that they were, in fact, a doctor.

The doctors had sticks so they didn’t have to get so close to the patients. They would pass things through the window on their sticks to and from the person they were attending too.

Finally, herbs we set alight and singed slightly before being placed into the beak of the mask. It was believed that the smoke would help protect the doctor.

They also wore round glass goggles. A hood and leather bands tethered the goggles and mask tightly to the doctor’s head. Besides the sweaty and horrifying exterior, the suit was deeply flawed in that it had airholes poked into the beak. As a result, many of the doctors contracted the plague and died.

The thing to remember here is that the doctors thought they had adequate protection; however, there was no way of actually scientifically proving that it worked. In hindsight, we know that it wasn’t as protective as they thought. Even though the inventor of the suits lived till he was 96, the fate of the plague doctors was much harsher. They usually had a short lifespan; however, if they did survive they would live in constant quarantine.


Although COVID stopped the world in 2020, we have a huge benefit over the plague — smart people. Particularly, epidemiologists and scientific backed studies.

In a study published by PLOS ONE showed that US States that adered to mask wearing showed that it did in fact slow the rate of spread. None of the states that complied reported no higher rates of 75% during summer and early fall 2020 experienced high numbers of infections through the end of October.

On the other hand, 14 of the 15 states that did not have the mask mandate saw higher rates of infection.

When the mandates were in effect, these states had an average COVID-19 infection rate of about 110 per 100,000 people in the general population during the study period, the data showed… States with lower mask compliance, or fewer than 25% of people wearing coverings in public, had about 240 cases per 100,000 people in the general population, the data showed.

I live in Victoria, where for four months last year there was a mask mandate during our Stage 4 Lockdown, now in April 2021, COVID is virtually non-existent with masks only mandatory in healthcare clinics, public transport, and when going for a test.

Since the lockdown in Victoria, studies have found that the modelling [for] face coverings were estimated to have reduced transmission and infection risk in the state by between 31 and 46 per cent, and “physical distancing behaviour” by about 6 to 28 per cent.

So what does this mean?

Plague doctors had it rough. Through not having the protective equipment through to no understanding of how other people can help in stopping the spread.

If I can say anything is that thanks to all the people who wore a mask, and although maybe didn’t understand the science — did it anyway. The more people that wear masks, not just the doctors, the sooner a place is likely to get back to a COVID normal.

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