One of the most distinctive masks worn during the Carnival of Venice is “Il Medico della Peste,” or “The Plague Doctor.” But the distinctive bone-white mask and black clothing was actually the 17th century equivalent of a biocontainment suit. Albeit one based on very shaky science.

A full description of the full outfit comes from Charles de Lorme, chief physician to Louis XIII:

The nose [is] half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the [herbs] enclosed further along in the beak. Under the coat we wear boots made in Moroccan leather (goat leather) from the front of the breeches in smooth skin that are attached to said boots, and a short sleeved blouse in smooth skin, the bottom of which is tucked into the breeches. The hat and gloves are also made of the same skin…with spectacles over the eyes.

As this 1619 is also the first description of this suit, de Lorme is also credited with inventing it. Let’s go through it from head to toe.

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First up is the wide-brimmed leather hat. As we’ve discussed before, no job in the 17th century really meant anything unless it had an official hat. Lawyers had wigs, the clergy had a whole mess of headgear, doctors had these. Because you know how disease hates hats.

The birdlike mask—which may predate the outfit by several centuries—was a gas mask. Sort of. de Lorme’s description says the beak should be “filled with perfume” and herbs stuffed into it. That’s because of the miasma theory of disease.

Miasma theory posited that disease was carried by a cloud of poisonous vapor in the air, which was created by decay and could be identified by a bad smell. Following the logic that bad smelling air carried disease, it makes perfect sense that you could “cure” the air by making it smell good. Hence the perfume. And the long nose to stuff good smelling material into.

In a lot of the masks you see today, there are black circles around the eyeholes, connected by a curved black line. That’s a representation of the spectacles the actual plague doctors had on their masks, which went a long way to keeping the evil miasma away from the doctors.

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The long black coat was tucked into the mask. Along with gloves and boots, the leather ensemble was a covering designed to protect the doctors’ skin from contact with the disease. Despite getting the foul air bit completely wrong, it’s not a completely ineffective way to protect against disease. Everything was even waxed so that liquids couldn’t permeate anything.

The doctors accessorized this look with a wooden stick that allowed them to make as little physical contact with the infected as possible

While to modern eyes the costume is very Grim Reaper-esque, a 17th century poem saw them as a benevolent force:

As may be seen on picture here,

In Rome the doctors do appear,

When to their patients they are called,

In places by the plague appalled,

Their hats and cloaks, of fashion new,

Are made of oilcloth, dark of hue,

Their caps with glasses are designed,

Their bills with antidotes all lined,

That foulsome air may do no harm,

Nor cause the doctor man alarm,

The staff in hand must serve to show

Their noble trade where’er they go

It’s not as a doctor plying noble trade that has given the costume its staying power. Plague equaled death, and when you have black garbed doctors roaming around with giant protruding mask noses and no eyes, you’re going to start associating them with death, too. The mask and costume became associated with the commedia dell’arte character Il Medico della Peste. And the white version of the mask was adopted in Venice and is now a frequent Carnival sight.

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Photo credits: DSCF1259.jpg by Darren and Brad/flickr/CC BY-NC 2.0; Paul Fürst, engraving, c. 1721, of a plague doctor of Marseilles/public domain/via Wikimedia


Contact the author at katharine@io9.com.