Today’s medical masks have a long, mysterious history

Mysteries
Plague Mask

A physician dressed in protective plague costume. Image: Wellcome Library, London.

MYSTERY WIRE — Much has been written on the need for essential workers and the general public to wear a mask, or face covering, during this coronavirus pandemic. But the idea of covering one’s face for protection dates back centuries. Even before it was understood what caused certain illnesses, doctors wore what has become known as plague masks.

Ancient-origins.net wrote one of the better histories of the plague masks. It says plague doctors were public servants hired by villages, towns, or cities when a plague struck. Not only were they responsible for treating the ill, they also often served as a witness during the reading of a will, and were sometimes responsible for burying the dead.

An authentic 16th-Century plague doctor mask. Located in the German Museum of Medicine History.

To our modern eyes, these masks resemble a bird’s head and beak. The reason why has several explanations. But the one that in hindsight mattered most, was an accident. People in the 17th century during a plague did not know about airborne germs. But they were concerned about dirty, smelly air and used the beak to keep spices, flowers, and other nice smelling items.

Even with limited knowledge by today’s standards, the plague doctors knew they needed protection around the ill. Prior to the 17th century, plague doctors wore a variety of protective suits, but by 1619 the bird head uniform was used. The man credited with the invention of this ‘plague suit’ is Charles de l’Orme, the chief physician of three French kings (Henri IV, Louis XIII and Louis XIV).

l’Orme’s suit was made of leather and included a hat, mask with beak, neck shroud, cloak or long coat, and a cane. More on the cane below.

A physician wearing a seventeenth century plague preventive costume.

Some historians say people of the day thought the plague was spread by birds and if a person dressed like the infected animal, the illness would be removed from a patient by transferring it to the uniform. As stated above, the mask and beak were packed with strong, pleasant smelling substances, such as ambergris, mint, or rose petals.

Plague doctors also carried a wooden cane. It’s believed the cane served several functions such as allowing the doctor to examine someone without touching them. Sound familiar to social distancing? The cane could also be used to indicate to his helpers or the family members of a victim how and where to move the patient or the deceased. And of course, the cane could be used in defense.

Gabe Zeifman poses in front of his Cessna 150. (Photo: Gabe Zeisman)

The beaked physician figure’s mask is still worn during the Carnival in Venice, Italy. You can also see it reproduced in what’s know as steampunk. In fact, recently we published the story of Gabe Zeifman, the private pilot who flew close to Area 51 while taking photographs. In one of his pictures on social media he is wearing a what appears to be a steampunk version of the plague mask.

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