Plague Doctor Mask, Steno Museum

The Secrets Behind the Plague Doctor’s Terrifying Costume

The plague doctor is arguably one of the most enigmatic figures to have emerged from the Middle Ages. These were European physicians who specialised in treating victims of the plague, the best known of which being the Black Death. Whilst plague doctors have been plying their trade since the Middle Ages, it was only after this period, during the 17 th century, that they acquired their trademark costume. The outfit of the plague doctor is the most iconic (though a little anachronistic) symbol associated today with the Black Death, and the plague in general.

A physician wearing a seventeenth century plague preventive costume.

A physician wearing a seventeenth century plague preventive costume. ( CC BY 4.0 )

Plague doctors were public servants hired by villages, towns or cities when a plague struck. In theory, the primary duties of a plague doctor were to treat and cure victims of the plague, and to bury the dead. Plague doctors were also responsible for tallying the number of casualties in logbooks for public record, and documented the last wishes of their patients. Furthermore, plague doctors were often summoned to testify and witness wills of the dead and dying. It seems that most plague doctors were occupied with this aspect of their job. At times, plague doctors were even requested to conduct autopsies, in order to better understand how the plague might be treated.

As plague doctors were in contact with victims of such a deadly disease, they were at risk of falling ill themselves, and therefore had to take precautions that would minimise this risk. Prior to the 17 th century, plague doctors wore a variety of protective suits. It was only in 1619 that a ‘uniform’ was invented, which became popular amongst plague doctors. The man attributed with the invention of this ‘plague suit’ is Charles de l’Orme, the chief physician of three French kings (Henri IV, Louis XIII and Louis XIV), and was also in the service of the Medici family of Italy. 

Special physician clothes for preventing pestilence

Special physician clothes for preventing pestilence (Germany, XVII century) at Jena ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

l’Orme’s protective suit consists of several elements that are easily recognisable. For a start, a hat was worn on the plague doctor’s head. This was made of leather, and was meant to indicate that its wearer was a doctor. Although the hat served a symbolic function, it has been speculated that it may have provided some protection by keeping some bacteria away. The next item is a mask, which was bird-like in shape, and had a long beak. According to one source, people once believed that the plague was spread by birds. Therefore, the use of such a mask may have stemmed from the belief that the disease could be removed from a patient by transferring it to the garment. The mask also had a utilitarian function, as the beak was packed with strong, pleasant smelling substances, such as ambergris, mint, or rose petals. These were meant to ward the disease away, though we know today that this would not have been effective.

Plague doctor mask from 1630 (circa 1900)

Plague doctor mask from 1630 (circa 1900) ( Public Domain )

l’Orme’s suit minimised exposure of the skin with a long overcoat. The neckline of this overcoat was tucked behind the mask, and extended all the way down to the feet. The entire piece of clothing was coated with suet, which, according to one hypothesis, was based on the belief that it would either repel the plague form the doctor, or draw it away from the victim. An alternative hypothesis is that the suet served to keep bodily fluids from sticking to the coat. In order to protect the lower body from infection, l’Orme designed his suit with a pair of leather breeches beneath the overcoat. Finally, a wooden cane was carried by the plague doctor. This tool served a variety of functions. For example, a plague doctor could use the cane to examine his patient without touching him or her. This tool could also be used to indicate to his helpers or family members of a victim how and where to move the patient or the deceased. In addition, the cane could be used in defence against the assault of desperate patients.

Jan van Grevenbroeck (1731-1807), Venetian doctor during the time of the plague. Pen, ink and watercolour on paper. Museo Correr, Venice

Jan van Grevenbroeck (1731-1807), Venetian doctor during the time of the plague. Pen, ink and watercolour on paper. Museo Correr, Venice ( Public Domain )

It is uncertain as to how effective l’Orme’s ‘plague suit’ really was. l’Orme himself lived into his 90s, which is pretty remarkable considering the age he was living in. It has been pointed out, however, that many plague doctors were not quite so fortunate, and ended up being victims of the plague themselves. It is likely, therefore, that l’Orme’s invention did little to protect its wearers for the dreaded disease.

Top image: Plague Doctor Mask, Steno Museum ( Tom Banwell Designs )

By Wu Mingren 


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The Romans knew what caused the plague but this became forgotten knowledge. A Roman historian left a poem, a couplet, which said, "The plague is not spread by the rats, but by the beasts that ride their backs."

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