These ominous figures appeared during the Black Death of the 14th Century, during which the Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe. Often, these fellows weren’t true physicians; most trained doctors had either died from plague themselves or deserted afflicted regions as untreatable by the time plague doctors became commonplace. Since so little could be done to prevent the plague from running its full – and fatal – course, the duties of plague doctors largely consisted of verifying if an individual was infected.
To protect himself from exposure to the disease, a plague doctor wore special clothing, including a wide-brimmed hat (a common garment worn by Medieval doctors, which allowed people to recognize the plague doctor as a member of the medical profession);a primitive gas-mask shaped like a bird’s head, with fragrant herbs stuffed in the beak and red glass lenses to protect the eyes (it was believed that birds carried the disease, so a bird-mask might entice the plague to leave the afflicted and be absorbed by the mask, and the herbs within purified “bad air” before the doctor could breathe it); a long, black cloak covered with wax, which would resist absorption of the various fluids spewed out of burst swellings or coughed up by the afflicted; leather breeches to protect the legs; and a walking stick which could enable to doctor to examine a patient without touching him.
In practice, the plague doctors probably helped to spread plague instead of stopping it, as the doctors could transfer contamination from one residence to another, but they represented an important step in the development of infection control.