The “Black Death” spread through Europe and Asia during the 14th century killing an estimated 200 million people. Although the origin of the plague doctor’s garment has been disputed, the function of the special costume remains consistent.
The protective cloak, a heavy, long, waxed fabric overcoat, protected the physician’s skin from exposure to contagions. The cause of the plague was unknown, but the wax coat and tall leather boots did protect the physician from the flea bites infected with the plague bacteria, Yersinia Pestis.
The mask, with its large beak nose, was filled with aromatic herbs, juniper berries, camphor, rose petals, cloves and mint. The Miasma Theory, that disease was spread by noxious odors, was not disputed. The aromatics were believed to protect the physician from the odors of putrefied bodies in the streets, poor sanitation and waste control ultimately contracting the disease. Today we wear masks with Vick’s Vapor Rub to disguise noxious odors.
The long staff carried by the plague doctor was a functional diagnostic tool. It was used to poke at patients from a distance to determine the closeness to death. It was used for pointing and fighting off combative patients. Only decades later was it determined that the plague was carried by infected oriental rats who were castaways on trade ships. The fleas lived on their rat hosts until such time the flea would infect a human with a bite.
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