The Earliest Hazmat Suits

Color copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel (Dr. Beak), a plague doctor in seventeenth-century Rome, published by Paul Fürst, (c. 1656).

The sight of various medical personnel clad in head-to-toe coverings to protect themselves from the COVID-19 virus has become common in recent weeks.  It used to be frightening to see something like that; images that were usually relegated to toxic waste dumps and crime scenes.  But such garb is nothing new.

Beginning in the 17th century C.E., as more epidemics of bubonic plague swept Western Europe, doctors often wore a variety of outfits to protect them from the miasma, or “bad air”, then believed to carry disease.  This was still a time when most people believed health scourges were acts of God and not the result of microbes gone awry.  (Some people – even in so-called developed nations – are still stupid enough to believe that!  The AIDS epidemic is a perfect example.)  It was long before people realized the importance of basic health measures: handwashing, sanitation, not listening to politicians or religious leaders.

These long-ago costumes look theatrical (almost comical) now, as they typically consisted of a head-to-toe leather or wax-canvas garment; large crystal glasses; and a long snout or bird beak, containing aromatic spices (such as mint and cloves), dried flowers (usually roses or carnations), or a vinegar sponge.  The strong smells of these items — sometimes set aflame for added advantage — were meant to combat the contagious miasma that the costume itself could not protect against.

They attire wasn’t just fanciful.  The ankle-length gowns and beaked masks could offer some protection against germs.  The design of these particular outfits has been credited to French physician Charles de Lorme who may have developed the concept around 1619.  By the time the “Plague of 1656” ravaged Italy (which was then a collection of city-states) and killed an estimated half-million people, the beaked coverings had become mostly mandatory.

Terrifying in centuries past, they make for good Halloween apparel today!

Photograph of 17th-century plague doctor mask from Austria or Germany on display in Berlin’s Deutsches Historisches Museum.

Theodore Zwinger III (1658-1724), coat of arms with portrait.

Man in plague mask on Poveglia, (c. 1899).

Plague doctor, from Jean-Jacques Manget, Traité de la peste, (1721).

Doctor in plague costume during the plague epidemic of 1720 in Marseille. Drawing first published in 1826 in the Guide sanitaire des gouvernemens européens by Louis-Joseph-Marie Robert.

Jan van Grevenbroeck (1731-1807), Venetian doctor during the time of the plague. Museo Correr, Venice.

Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel, a plague physician in 17th-century Rome, (c. 1656).

IJsbrand van Diemerbroeck, Dutch plague doctor.

Satirical engraving by Johann Melchior Füssli of a doctor of Marseilles clad in cordovan leather equipped with a nose-case packed with plague-repelling smoking material.

Doctor’s outfit at the Lazaret de Marseille, 1720.

A physician wearing a 17th-century plague costume, as imagined in 1910.

A physician wearing a 17th-century plague costume, as imagined in 1910.

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