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Why plague doctors wore beaked masks


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The year is 1656. Your body is wracked by violent chills. Your head pounds and you're too weak to sit up. In your feverish state, you see a strange-looking man wearing a beak-like mask, his body covered from head to toe. Without seeing his face, you know: you have the plague. So, where did these iconic outfits come from? Stephanie Honchell Smith explores the history of plague doctors.

Additional Resources for you to Explore

We’d like to thank historians Winston Black and John Aberth for advising on this lesson’s content.

Before the emergence of modern medicine, the plague was one of the most destructive and feared illnesses in human history. It claimed tens of millions of lives across Afro-Eurasia in three separate pandemics. The beaked plague doctor is one of the most popular images associated with the plague and with pre-modern European medicine. To learn more about the history of this outfit, see the works of Winston Black, including this article about separating fact from fiction. Additionally, this article from National Geographic explores why the mask emerged and how it reflected 17th-century European ideas about medicine and science.

While sources on the plague mask itself are limited, we have a lot of information about outbreaks of plague in 17th-century Europe, such as the diary of British naval administrator Samuel Pepys. The first modern encyclopedia, published by Denis Diderot in the 18th century includes two entries on plague, which can be found here and here. While largely inaccurate from a scientific and historical perspective, they provide fascinating insights into how people at the time understood and explained the plague. 

For modern academic discussions of the plague in world history, including the Black Death, see the works of John Aberth, Michael Dols, and Monica Green

Today, the plague is still around but because of antibiotics, it is rarely fatal. For modern scientific discussions of plague and its existence in the world today, see the CDC website and this fact sheet from the World Health Organization (WHO).

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Meet The Creators

  • Educator Stephanie Honchell Smith
  • Director Anton Bogaty
  • Narrator George Zaidan
  • Music Samuel Bellingham
  • Sound Designer Samuel Bellingham
  • Director of Production Gerta Xhelo
  • Producer Alexandra Zubak
  • Associate Producer Sazia Afrin
  • Editorial Director Alex Rosenthal
  • Fact-Checker Charles Wallace

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