This is the doctor that a Bubonic Plague victim could expect to see standing over their death bed.
Plague doctors wore beak-shaped masks that were filled with scented herbs, straw, spices, and flowers. The masks prevented the bad smells, and were believed to counter the sickness by creating “good air”. As long as the doctors couldn’t smell the plague, they thought couldn’t catch it. Science did not yet understand bacteria, microbes, and viruses so people had to rationalize the spreading of the plague the best they could. The doctors also wore heavy clothes from head to toe and often times used a wooden cane to examine or instruct a patient without directly touching them.
Patients that saw one of these doctors most likely knew the end was near.
Doctors were often sent to areas that were badly infested with an outbreak; their primary purpose was to get a count of the dead and organize quarantines. These doctors were often either young, trying to establish a career, or simply unsuccessful professionals looking for work. It wasn’t uncommon for the doctors to perform autopsies or administer last rights, as well.
The terrifying mask’s primary function was purifying bad smells to prevent infection. While that theory was incorrect, the masks did have benefits. Though hygiene was nonexistent in the time of the plague, the masks and uniform inadvertently protected the doctor from germs and bodily fluids. The outfit was a sort of a preliminary hazmat suit that acted to keep everything out. The uniform also helped the doctor from getting bitten by fleas, whom were major contributors to the spread of the plague. The masks and outfit unintentionally prevented some spread of disease simply by reducing contact with the infected. While the initial logic behind the bird mask was primitive, it did often have the intended outcome – keeping doctors alive.
Symptoms of the Black Death included fever, chills, shock, and weakness. The sick also had an appearance of buboes in the groin, neck or armpits which were full of puss and blood. Victims often died after two to seven days of being infected.
The Black Death is said to originate in 541 A.D. in Central Asia and lasted around 200 years, peaking at around 1346-1353. Around 100 million people perished, causing a 30-60% decrease in Europe’s population, which didn’t recover until the 17th century.
For those of you who believe the plague was eradicated and think you have nothing to worry about, you’re wrong.
The plague is still active in many different parts of the world, including in the United States. The most recent outbreak was in Madagascar in 2014, killing 40 people and affecting over 100. Although it is more uncommon in the US, the plague occasionally occurs in the southwest where wild rodents carry the bacteria through fleas. Between 1920 and 2012 there were 999 confirmed cases of the plague that arose in the US. There is no commercially available vaccine to protect you from the plague. However, if caught early enough, antibiotics can treat the disease and you will never have to see this masked doctor on your deathbed.