An ankle length overcoat, boots, thick gloves, a brim hat and, most importantly, a mask reminiscent of a raven's face, complete with a beak. You certainly know the costume - it has become one of the most iconic uniforms in human history. And now for the story behind it.
A plague doctor is a physician specializing on tending to those who suffered from the bubonic plague. Interestingly, the beak mask itself, dated XIV, predates the full head-to-toe protectve garment, invented in the XVI century. The explanation behind the beak mask is simple: according to the miasma theory of infection
, diseases essentially transfer via the poisonous stench, and the doctors protected themselves from inhaling it by placing various herbs, flowers and other aromatic substances inside the beak. We now know that the miasma theory is false
, but the costume did a good job protecting doctors from the exposure, and the mask blocked airborne infections (especially if the plants contained fitoncides), thus the plague doctor's outfit is essentially a grandfather to our modern mask-and-labcoat medical uniforms; even more so the hazmat suits.
The costume itself was associated with death (where there's plague, there's the beak doctors and also death), which has become deeply ingrained in popular culture. Thus, a plague doctor's outfit is a typical go-to creepy costume. It is also used when the setting has the Black Plague or its equivalent featured. Another common interpretation of this trope is to make the Plague Doctor spread
plague instead of cure it.
For a modern equivalent see Gas Mask, Longcoat
. Coat, Hat, Mask
is a broader trope.
Anime & Manga
- In Berserk, one member of Inquisitor Mozgus' Quirky Miniboss Squad wear such a suit. He is a torturer rather than a doctor - he has to wear a suit due to a serious alergic reaction to sunlight.
- Doctor Fell from Castle Waiting is a plague doctor who has been driven mad by his experiences.
- In Spider-Man 1602, Baron Octavius (who is dying of the Black Death, and willing to go to any means to cure it) makes his first appearance flanked by plague doctors.
- Mortasheen features a family of monsters that are avian and heavily based in appearance on the plague doctor. This being Mortasheen they spread plague.
- A Pathfinder module features the "Queen's Physicians," who dress like this.
- In one of the Assassin's Creed games one of the playable characters is dresses as a Plague Doctor. Assassin's Creed II and II:Brotherhood also have NPC doctors in this costume (which is appropriate for Medici-era Italy).
- The Wizzrobes from The Legend of Zelda occasionally sport a similar outfit.
- Characters reminiscent of plague doctors pop up in Pathologic, as the decease spreads throughout the town.
- In Ragnarok Online the guards of the city of Geffen have a uniform heavily based on the plague doctors, sans hat. There is, however, no plague. Note that the plague doctors' outfits in real life are themselves based on military uniforms.
- In RuneScape there is a set of quests set in West Ardougne collectively named the Plague City Quests that live this trope to a T. You learn to love Ye Olde Worlde hazmat suits.
- Team Fortress 2 has a misc item for the medic called the "Blighted Beak". It's not the full outfit, but only the beak.
- Grand Apothecary Putress of World of Warcraft weaks a mask inspired by the beak mask, and is a plague-spreader. Warlocks have a similar armor set, they, however, being demonic mages, have nothing to do with plague.
- Adventure Time has Princess Bubblegum wear this in the episode "What Have You Done?". She was spraying a green gas that covered the candy kingdom in fog. Unsurprisingly, Finn and Jake got scared.
- There's the continued use of the decorative Medico Della Peste (Plague Doctor) mask-and-costume set in the Venetian Carnevale to this day. Many settings even only semi-based on Venice have a tendancy to trot it out, as well as the other masks (most based in the Commedia dell'Arte). For instant decadence, just add death and pretty masks.