Doctor Beak (Not M.D.)

The protective suit worn by a plague doctor.

In the wake of the Ebola outbreak, many pixels and reels have been devoted to the protective gear worn by healthcare workers treating such patients. Called the “personal protective equipment” (or P.P.E.), the head-to-toe coverall, produced by DuPont, is made either Tyvek or Tychem, a kind of fiber-like plastic, topped by a hood, breathing mask, gloves, etc.

Back in the 17th and 18th centuries, when plague was rampant, a figure, known as the “plague doctor”—typically, a second-class physician, who treated only those afflicted by, well, the plague—could be seen trudging through towns threatened by the epidemic.

He wore a heavy, waxed overcoat, and a brimmed hat (which was what distinguished him as a medico.) His face was covered with an avian mask, from which protruded a “beak.” Filled with aromatic materials and straw, it purified the putrid air, believed, at the time, to be the cause of the infection. He also carried a wooden cane to help examine the sick, without having to touch them.


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