11/26/12

Paul Fürst (?), Doctor Beak of Rome (Doctor Schnabel von Rom)

Date: c. 1656
Technique: Copper engraving

The plague doctor's costume was the clothing worn by a plague doctor to protect him from airborne diseases. The costume consisted of an ankle length overcoat and a bird-like beak mask often filled with sweet or strong smelling substances (commonly lavender), along with gloves, boots, a brim hat and an outer over-clothing garment.

Straps held the beak in front of the doctor's nose. The mask had glass openings for the eyes and a curved beak shaped like that of a bird. The mask had two small nose holes and was a type of respirator which contained aromatic items. The beak could hold dried flowers (including roses and carnations), herbs (including mint), spices, camphor or a vinegar sponge. The purpose of the mask was to keep away bad smells, which were thought to be the principal cause of the disease in the miasma theory of infection, before it was disproved by germ theory. Doctors believed the herbs would counter the "evil" smells of the plague and prevent them from becoming infected.

The beak doctor costume worn by plague doctors had a wide brimmed leather hood to indicate their profession. They used wooden canes to point out areas needing attention and to examine patients without touching them. The canes were also used to keep people away, to remove clothing from plague victims without having to touch them, and to take a patient's pulse.

Wearing these clothes actually helped to prevent getting infected by a diseased flea or a rat. Fleas could not bite through the leather jacket and infected people could not touch the doctor, also because of his leather jacket.

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