How the Plague Doctor’s Mask Worked

Did the plague doctor’s attire protect against infection?

Ben Kageyama
3 min readNov 2, 2020


Plague Doctor in the rain, Wikimedia Commons

AA deadly and vicious outbreak of the bubonic plague afflicted Italy in the middle of the 17th century. It spread quickly through Rome, Genoa, and Naples, leaving about 200 to 400 thousand dead bodies in its wake. The plague's origin in Italy can’t be fully determined, although some scholars suspect that Naples was its epicentre. Even with news of the disease, Naples’s restrictions and precautions were lacking and its people remained carefree — a scene all too familiar today.

The state employed special plague doctors tasked with only caring for plague victims to cure the thousands that were sick.

To protect themselves, the doctors wore quite an iconic mask and robe. But were they any effective?

What was the outfit’s rationale?

Early medical theories about the plague determined that “evil smells” and “bad air” caused the infection. While this theory is now obsolete, it is referred to in medical literature as the “miasma theory.”

Since then, doctors have confirmed that the bubonic plague's true cause was a bacterium called “Yersinia Pestis” found on fleas that spread across Europe through rats.

An unlucky victim would first contract the flu and report painful and swelling lymph nodes. After a few days, the patient commonly contracts gangrene and would periodically vomit blood. In just a week after infection, the patient could expire.

So given their theory, doctors did their best to protect themselves from the afflictive odors.

The most iconic piece of the costume is the doctor’s birdlike mask. It had a long beak to filter foul smells using different dried flowers and spices. Their beaks were makeshift respirators filled with roses, lavender, and even peppermint to keep the contagion away.

Their robes would also be tucked into the mask and made with Moroccan leather. This and their gloves would prevent direct contact with the infected patient. To prevent the smells from sticking to their clothes, their entire outfit was also waxed.



Ben Kageyama

Truth is stranger than fiction. I write about both. ||