Back in the day with "plague doctors", they had this scary-looking but apparently effective protection gear with the beak and gloves and hat and cape and whatnot.

Apparently, it was enough to protect them while interacting with the patients. But what next? As soon as they remove them, handle them and store them for next time, would the wearer not get infected from the "plague particles" all over the outside of the gear?

I cannot imagine a 16th century sterile room where you get showered with some kind of chemical substance to clean it away.

How did they get rid of the disease?

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    Since the doctors had no real idea of how the infection was transmitted and no idea of what bacteria were, it probably wouldn't have occurred to them to sterilize their clothing.
    – Steve Bird
    Apr 3 at 12:47
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    The mask, the suit and a stick they used also helped them to maintain certain distances so the sick wouldn't cough infectious blood on them if the plague had reached the pulmonary fase. Apr 3 at 13:05
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    @Selvin: You're thinking of (usually viral) respiratory infections. Plague is typically a vector-borne bacillus, in the case of the great European plagues of the 14th and 17th century Yersinia pestis, which causes three different plagues depending on transmission route: Bubonic plague is contracted by the bite of an infected flea, or exposure to infected bodily fluids, infecting the lymphatic system; septicemic plague occurs when instead the circulatory system is the infection route; and pneumonic plague is the relatively rare respiratory version infecting the lungs. Apr 3 at 13:20
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    For some reason the Plague Doctor myth is really popular on the internet right now, along with the "Vampire Hunter Kits" myth.
    – T.E.D.
    Apr 3 at 16:18
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    I would imagine that if there were professional plague doctors, you're seeing a form of survivor bias. People who helped plague victims medically -- note that I don't include "dress like birds" as a criterion -- were probably partly or wholly immune, either because of an innate immunity (with most diseases some people are naturally immune) or because they caught it and recovered. The ones who were not immune probably wound up seeing far fewer patients and ending their practice early...
    – Mark Olson
    Apr 3 at 16:54

1 Answer 1


Its a common myth, that aggravates some of my historian friends to no end, that "plague doctors" with the clever bird-like black outfits, were A Thing during the Black Death, or in fact at any time prior to the 17th Century. They were not.

Here's a nifty meme made by one of them on Twitter. enter image description here

Of course even in the 17th century when they did exist, there's no real evidence the fancy duds were particularly effective. It was just a fashion choice. One might imagine the mask was of some help with airborne diseases, but if so that was luck rather than skill.

Prior to the 20th Century there was not yet a generally-accepted germ theory of disease. Instead the predominant theory was miasma: The idea that there was "bad air", particularly around dead or diseased things. The reason for the masks was to try to filter the "bad air", and purify it by means of adding scents inside the mask, such as lavender. If it smells good, its now healthy, right?

Of course there's no known medicinal benefit to lavender scent proven by modern science, but in a world where the predominant theory of disease was miasma, blocking the existing air and making it smell better probably seemed like a smart idea to protect oneself.

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    All of this is true, but it is somewhat skew from the question. There are now two questions. 1) how did Plague Doctors perform a process (decontamination) of which they were unaware (answer, they didn't, any more than they did quantum physics or diversity training or any other modern process) and 2) what did plague doctors actually wear?
    – MCW
    Apr 3 at 16:53
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    @MCW But the original poster does link to a wiki article that features the stereotypical "plague doctor" illustration. I think the iconic image leads people to infer there was a continuous and widespread concept of "plague doctor" in European history; the wikipedia article certainly seems to make that error. Apr 3 at 17:14

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