An Homage to The Beak Doctor
There’s just something inherently curious about such devastating human tragedies as The Black Plague. It’s morbid fascination and visual repulsion seems to be what draws us ever onward to want to see more and more. Fortunately, not one of us alive today was around when it all went down (unless you know someone who is around 800 years old), but just about everyone knows a little something about it.
It ran its course from 1348 until about the early 1400’s, but it made sporadic reappearances throughout history including 1603, 1630, 1650, 1665, and 1720 in various locations all over Europe and Asia. It’s original incarnation killed an estimated 100 million people and nearly quartered the population of Europe. It was, without a doubt, one of the deadliest Pandemics in human history, even if scientists can’t necessarily agree on its origin.
All of that aside, if there was one vision that stands out (aside from the myriad pictures of corpses and plague-riddled humanity) it would have to be that of the exceptionally creepy, yet only remaining bastion of human comfort, The Beak Doctor. Horror movies generations over have copied this visage, and of course twisted it into something evoking terror and repugnance, when in reality, it was often considered man’s last hope for any semblance of survival.
The existence of The Beak Doctor was born completely out of immediate necessity. If you were a struggling physician or one who had a practice that was in question, you were called upon. If you were an up-and-coming doctor who simply need to make a name for himself, you were called upon. And you found out all too quickly that you treated everyone, regardless of race, the same because as we all know, the Plague didn’t discriminate. And beyond that, just being a Plague Doctor was a dangerous profession especially when anyone within arms reach was practically clawing at you for whatever reassurance you could give them. Thus, they were relatively scarce.
The garb makes the man, and in this case it couldn’t be closer to the truth. The Plague Doctor’s visage was perhaps one of the strangest in history. Thanks in whole to attempting to prevent themselves from contracting the plague, extra measures had to be taken to ensure that the entire body was covered. Beginning with the head -the most noticeable feature- the doctor generally had a full oiled leather head cover that may or may not have encapsulated the entire skull, much like a second skin. Over the face was a long beak that looked oddly similar to a giant bird. Inside the beak were various herbs and pungent spices that supposedly warded off not only the disease but also the scent of the dead itself. Their eyes were covered as well with thick, glass goggles. Below the covered neck they were emblazoned with a full-length oiled leather trench coat and breeches including gloves and thick boots. Each member of the order was identified by -besides the obvious beak- a wide-brimmed hat and a cane with which they could prod and examine victims without having to touch them. The following is a poem about these dapper fellows:
As may be seen on picture here,
In Rome the doctors do appear,
When to their patients they are called,
In places by the plague appalled,
Their hats and cloaks, of fashion new,
Are made of oilcloth, dark of hue,
Their caps with glasses are designed,
Their bills with antidotes all lined,
That foulsome air may do no harm,
Nor cause the doctor man alarm,
The staff in hand must serve to show
Their noble trade where’er they go.
Of course there’s a toy! Why wouldn’t there be? You can find it HERE.
And there you have it. A little homage to history’s creepiest and, realistically least helpful doctors in history.