On the subject of masks -beyond all the controversy over the diverse spectrum of alternatives- I began to wonder about their history as a method of protection… and obviously, I arrived at the famous and striking “plague doctors”, I hope you like it!
The Black Plague has stained our history with death, but it has also shaped much of our social, cultural and public health policies. As we have seen, little and nothing was known about it, except that it had a high mortality rate (without treatment 80% of patients die within 2-7 days). Until the end of the 19th century, it was believed that some diseases -such as the Black Death- were transmitted by miasmas, or noxious and pestilential vapors emitted by decaying matter (miasmatic theory). In this context, we can imagine the panic caused by each epidemic outbreak and the dangers involved in medical care (some cities hired “community plague doctors” to treat all patients irrespective of wealth). To protect themselves from miasmas, medieval doctors wore a very particular outfit: a white mask with a large beak, a black hat, gloves, goggles and a waxed boat. The beak of the mask was filled with aromatic herbs impregnated with “Theriaca Andromachi”, a kind of multipurpose medicinal potion that served to “purify” the vapors. The design of this attire is attributed to Charles de L’Orme (1584-1678). To examine patients from a safe distance, doctors carried a wooden stick crowned by a winged hourglass (Tempus Fugit).
Many things have changed since the first outbreaks of the Black Death, but fear, distancing and personal protective measures remain. Also, today just as much as yesterday, doctors, nurses and many other health workers, as well as researchers, are fighting to take care of the sick and to explore alternatives that will give us better methods of diagnosis, treatment and prevention. A tribute to all of them.