By the 1600s, the plague doctor was a terror to behold, thanks to his costume — perhaps the most potent symbol of the Black Death. The protective garment was created by the 17th-century physician Charles de l’Orme (1584-1678).
De l’Orme had been the physician of choice for several French kings (one Henri and a Louis or two), and was also a favourite of the Medici family in Italy. In 1619 — as a carefully considered way to protect himself from having to visit powerful, plague-infested patients he couldn’t say no to — de l’Orme created the iconic uniform.
Its dramatic flair certainly made it seem like a good idea, and the costume quickly became all the rage among plague doctors throughout Europe.
Made of a canvas outer garment coated in wax, as well as waxed leather pants, gloves, boots and hat, the costume became downright scary from the neck up.
A dark leather hood and mask were held onto the face with leather bands and gathered tightly at the neck so as to not let in any noxious, plague-causing miasmas that might poison the wearer.
Eyeholes were cut into the leather and fitted with glass domes.
As if this head-to-toe shroud of foreboding wasn’t enough, from the front protruded a grotesque curved beak designed to hold the fragrant compounds believed to keep “plague air” at bay.
Favourite scents included camphor, floral concoctions, mint, cloves, myrrh and basically anything that smelled nice and strong.
In some French versions of the costume, compounds were actually set to smolder within the beak, in the hopes that the smoke would add an extra layer of protection.
A wooden stick completed the look, which the plague doctor used to lift the clothing and bed sheets of infected patients to get a better look without actually making skin-to-skin contact.