With the current pandemic firmly entrenched and the death toll rising, it’s not surprising that people are looking to history for answers. However, if the strange bird-like masks worn by bubonic plague doctors are anything to go on, we’re in trouble.

The coronavirus pandemic is not the first time we humans have faced an outbreak that kills on a massive scale.

3 of the Worst Pandemics in Human History

Spanish Flu (1918-1920)

  • Death toll: 20 – 50 million
  • Cause: H1N1 Flu Virus

Spanish Flu is a HIN1 flu virus of avian origin. It was first identified in American military personal at the start of 1918. The virus was particularly deadly in children under 5, 20-30-year-olds and the over 65s. At the time, there were no vaccines, no cure and pretty much no treatment.

This strain of flu infected around 500 million globally and was first discovered in Spain, hence – Spanish Flu.

The Black Death (1346-1353)

  • Death Toll: 75 – 200 million
  • Cause: Bubonic Plague

Thought to have originated in Asia, the Black Death spread from infected fleas biting rats. These rats would board merchant ships and travel across the oceans to trading ports in far-away continents. Once the ships landed at the ports, the rats would jump off and enter the busy market areas. It is here they came into contact with humans.

Symptoms of the bubonic plague included painful and swollen lumps around the lymph nodes known as buboes. After a period of time, these buboes turned black – hence the Black Death.

The Great Plague of London (1665-1666)

  • Death Toll: 75,000 – 100,000
  • Cause: Bubonic Plague

The bubonic plague first appeared in the 14-century but surfaced again in London in 1665. It spread rapidly throughout the capital, killing 20% of London’s population.

It began in small, over-crowded slums and quickly infected thousands of people. So vast was the death toll that mass graves were needed. But eventually, in 1666, the Great Fire of London burned and cleansed this infested city.

The Rise of the Bubonic Plague Doctors

Italian Plague 1650

An epidemic of the bubonic plague broke out in Naples, Italy in 1656. Thought to have spread from a ship that carried the disease, it ravaged the city of Naples. The death toll was half of the city’s residents.

The poor could not avoid contracting the plague. However, their lean, hard muscular bodies were more able to cope with the symptoms. On the other hand, the rich, well-fed, lazy and overweight might be able to reduce their risk of contracting the disease. But they were not in the best of health.

Italian officials took desperate measures. This led to the emergence of a new kind of doctor – the Bubonic Plague Doctors.

bubonic plague doctors
“Doctor Beak from Rome”, engraving, Rome, 1656. Physician attire for protection from the Bubonic plague or Black death.

Why Did Bubonic Plague Doctors Wear Creepy Beak Costumes and Masks?

These doctors were either recently qualified or second-rate doctors or had no medical training at all. But that didn’t matter to the Italian government. What was important was the fact that these plague doctors were willing to enter the city and treat the infected. But first, they had to have suitable protective clothing.

As a result, the bubonic plague doctors dressed in the most outlandish gear. These doctors became a common sight, but there was nothing ordinary or comforting about their appearance.

They wore face masks shaped like bird’s beaks. The long beak of the mask held strong, cleansing herbs such as absinthe and wormwood. Herbs were stuffed into the beaks of the facemasks to filter out the toxic air.

Their weird crazy outfits included a pair of goggles, long waxed coats, gloves and a top hat. They would also carry a long baton stick to point to things of importance, presumably because talking was difficult.

Their appearance certainly raised eyebrows and got tongues wagging. One German visitor spoke out at the time:

“You believe it is a fable, what is written about Doctor Beak … Oh, believe and don’t look away, for the Plague rules Rome.” Paul Fürst

Funnily enough, it was not their duty to attempt to cure the sick and ailing. Their tasks were more administrative. They kept detailed notes of the death toll, the sick and infected.

They were authorised to attend autopsies and to witness the final signing of a person’s will. With this much power and influence, it is understood that some of the plague doctors did try and scam their ‘patients’.

Why the Creepy Beak-Nosed Masks Did Not Work

 

bubonic plague doctors mask

It may be obvious to us that the reason for the creepy costumes was for protection. The experts at the time believed the plague was spread through bad air or miasma.

Therefore, the long beaks were essential to the bubonic plague doctors as they filtered out this diseased air. Sometimes they even burned the herbs as an additional precaution. The long waxed coats and gloves were also protection against the air.

However, the problem was not the air. The plague spreads through slum conditions, crowded living areas, bad sanitation and contaminated water supplies.

Another problem was the lack of qualifications or indeed medical knowledge from the bubonic plague doctors. In fact, many of them took to inventing their own ‘cures’ and selling them to the rich and wealthy in society.

Such cures included covering the buboes with excrement, blood-letting and lancing the painful sores. They even poured mercury over the contaminated and heated it up in ovens.

Final Thoughts

Thankfully, we now know much more about contamination and how viruses spread. We also have the proper equipment and the necessary techniques to help stop modern-day pandemics.

I mean, can you imagine contracting a serious virus and then having to let one of those bubonic plague doctors into your house? No, me neither!

References:

  1. www.history.com
  2. www.nationalgeographic.com
Janey Davies, B.A. (Hons)

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