Bubonic Plague: Why a Doctor Invented the First Face Mask

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Copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel [i.e Dr. Beak], a plague doctor — 17th century
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Kuma Kum

How the “Quarantine” Originated in Italy

As little as they knew about the plague, port cities in Italy even at the sudden and swift onset of this horrendous disease in 1347, did actually suspect people on ships were bringing the virus from areas of the world already infected. Venice closed its canals and insisted those traveling to the city and all scheduled ships be isolated for thirty days. Later on, that period of time became set as forty days, thus originating the word “quarantine” (“quaranta” in Italian).

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Juan Antonio Ruiz Rivas CC BY-SA

How Did People Personally Experience Such a Consuming Crisis?

When I first learned about the Black Death in Europe, the subject riveted me. It wasn’t only because I learned how a plague — any plague — takes hold of a population, it was also the effect of eyewitness reports I researched, small bits and pieces in journals and letters people wrote about what they experienced and most of all, what they saw happening to others. So many people wandered aimlessly across the landscape as if in a trance, without homes or possessions or loved ones, with nowhere to go, some like sleepwalkers, others deranged, or becoming so. So many unable to process any of it.

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Mardis Gras and the Beak Doctor

The memory lives on through some of our cultural celebrations. It has been a tradition for ages for people to attend ritual ceremonies where revelers wear masks. Think of the streets of New Orleans at Mardi Gras, the Venetian Carnivale (Carnivale di Venezia), or the millions who visit during the Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. The proliferation of inventive and often extraordinary masks are stunning. But each festival also has examples of the plague doctor! It is astonishing that part of a joyful celebration also includes a reminder of the greatest pandemic in human history.

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Traditional Venetian Carnavale masks, including the “plague doctor’s” mask

How Did It End?

What ended the series of bubonic pandemics that beset the world? It seems to have ended after the 1665 bubonic plague struck London, wiping out a quarter of the population. I wrote about that just recently in my article A Portent for These Times — Daniel Defoe’s Journal of a Plague Year.

Written by

Storyteller and dreamer. I write about the English language, being human, the magic of life, and metaphysics. www.regina-clarke.com

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