Plague Mask (Medical History)

Plague Mask (From Last Danish Plague):

Plague Mask Facts:
  • Bird's beak shaped face mask worn by Plague Doctors initially from the Black Death.
  • Possibly acted like a primitive gas mask.
  • Common belief at the time that the plague was spread by birds and possibly that the mask would draw the disease away from the suffer.
  • Contained red glass eye pieces which may have helped to protect the plague doctor from evil influences.
  • The beak of the mask usually contained strongly aromatic herbs and spices.
  • These additions to the beak may have helped reduce bad odours - terrible stench of unburied corpses and fluids from ill plague patients ie buboes etc.
  • Some have suggested that the bird like appearance of the masks may have led to the origin of the term 'Quack' for medical practitioners (most likely wrong).
Tourist versions of the mask are available at selected destinations such as the The Real Mary King Close (in Edinburgh), see picture below.

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Image Credits (flickr): Top Image andreas_krautwald (cc); Top Right Image jaggitha (cc); Tourist Mask by twenty_questions (cc)

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Black Death (Bubonic Plague) 1347-1351

The Black Death:
  • The Black Death was one of the deadliest pandemics in human history.
  • Peaked in Europe from 1348-1350.
  • Believed to be caused by an outbreak of bubonic plague spread by fleas from rats.
  • The origin of the Black Death appears to have been in Central Asia with it probably travelling through to the Crimea by around 1346.
  • It is postulated that merchant ships then spread the plague throughout Europe, Northern Africa and the Mediterranean.
Consequences of The Black Death:
  • Estimated to have killed 30% to 60% of Europe's population.
  • Believed to have created a number of social, economic and religious upheavals.
  • It was a serious threat to the power of the Catholic Church.
  • Minorities were often persecuted or scapegoated as contributors to the cause of the black death.
  • Because of the high risks of death - the plague years were associated with a morbid pessimistic mood amongst the population.
  • Bubonic plague returned on several occasions in Europe until the 19th century.
Consequences for Medicine & health care:
  • The practice of alchemy, as medicine, began to wane as people realized that the epidemic was not affected by the actions of alchemists (in some circumstances they actually made things worse).
  • Alchemists were the original makers of distilled spirits, and these were often used as a remedy with the consequence that alcohol consumption escalated (with all the social consequences of that).
  • More emphasis was placed on anatomical investigations following the Black Death.
  • The importance of surgeons was also enhanced following this plague epidemic, particularly as a result of the writings of Guy de Chauliac from Avignon in France.
Plague Doctors:
  • Plague doctor duties often were limited to visiting plague victims to ascertain whether they had been afflicted or not.
  • Often very well compensated financially for the risks they took.
  • Most plague doctors were layperson volunteers as qualified doctors had often fled knowing they could do nothing.
Plague Doctors Clothing:
  • Considered one of the first examples of protective clothing for hazardous materials.
  • Consisted of wide-brimmed black hat (signified that the person was a doctor).
  • The wide brim of the hat may have given some partial shielding from the plague infection
  • Bird's beak shaped face mask (plague mask) - acting like a primitive gas mask, and containing red glass eye pieces (possibly to protect from the 'evil eye').
  • The beak of the plague mask usually contained strongly aromatic herbs and spices which may have been designed to combat the bad air and reduce the smell of the stench from rotting corpses and sick patients.
  • Long black coat which was tucked behind the beak face mask, extended from the feet and designed to reduce the amount of skin exposed to the minimum.
  • The coat was often coated in a wax or similar material which may have helped reduce body fluids from sticking to it.
  • Leather breeches similar to the modern-day waders used by fishermen helped protect from exposure to possible contagions.
  • Wooden cane to point with and also enable a rudimentary examination at a distance.
Many recurrences of the plague have been documented - for example in England outbreaks occurred in 1361–62, 1369, 1379–83, 1389–93, the early 15th century, 1498, 1535, 1543, 1563, 1589, 1603, 1625, 1636, 1665-1666 (Great Plague Of London).

Notable plague outbreaks:
  • Italian Plague of 1629–1631
  • Great Plague of Seville (1647–1652)
  • Great Plague of London (1665–1666)
  • Great Plague of Vienna (1679)
  • Great Plague of Marseille in 17201722
  • Great Plague of 1738 (Eastern Europe)
  • Russian plague (1770-1772)

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Photocredit -flickr jaggitha (cc)

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