Doktor Schnabel, I Presume

Home/History/Doktor Schnabel, I Presume

Doktor Schnabel, I Presume

Doktor Schnabel von Rom (“Doctor Beak of Rome”), engraving by Paul Fürst, 1656.

As if being stricken by, and usually succumbing to, the plague wasn’t bad enough, imagine if your doctor looked like this. Said to be an early form of hazmat suit, but certainly the first Halloween costume, here’s the breakdown as taken from the wikipedia article:

  • A wide-brimmed black hat worn close to the head. At the time, a wide-brimmed black hat would have identified a person as a doctor, much the same as how nowadays a hat may identify chefs, soldiers, and workers. The wide-brimmed hat may have also been used as partial shielding from infection.
  • A primitive gas mask in the shape of a bird’s beak. A common belief at the time was that the plague was spread by “bad air”. There may have been a belief that by dressing in a bird-like mask, the wearer could draw the plague away from the patient and onto the garment the plague doctor wore. The mask also included red glass eyepieces, which were thought to make the wearer impervious to evil. The beak of the mask was often filled with strongly aromatic herbs and spices to overpower the miasmas or “bad air” which was also thought to carry the plague. At the very least, it may have dulled the smell of unburied corpses and sputum from plague victims.
  • A long, black overcoat. The overcoat worn by the plague doctor was tucked in behind the beak mask at the neckline to minimize skin exposure. It extended to the feet, and was often coated head to toe in suet or wax. A coating of suet may have been used with the thought that the plague could be drawn away from the flesh of the infected victim and either trapped by the suet, or repelled by the wax. The coating of wax likely served as protection against respiratory droplet contamination, but it was not known at the time if coughing carried the plague. It was likely that the overcoat was waxed to simply prevent sputum or other bodily fluids from clinging to it.
  • A wooden cane. The cane was used to both direct family members to move the patient, other individuals nearby, and possibly to examine patients without directly touching them.
  • Leather breeches. Similar to waders worn by fishermen, leather breeches were worn beneath the cloak to protect the legs and groin from infection. Since the plague often tended to manifest itself first in the lymph nodes, particular attention was paid to protecting the armpits, neck, and groin.
September 3rd, 2010|Categories: History|5 Comments


  1. Bnj2k September 3, 2010 at 10:16 PM - Reply

    The first time I saw a picture of them, I thought they looked like penguins.

    Plague penguins.


    • Jim September 4, 2010 at 4:03 PM - Reply

      Ha! Can you imagine being sicker than hell, crazed by fever, then seeing a giant bird (or Plaguin) with red eyes coming at you with a stick? How many died from fright I wonder?

  2. Skinner September 5, 2010 at 1:03 PM - Reply

    I was recently reading an old EC comic tale that revolved around plague doctors – if it hadn’t been packed already, I’d scan a few pages.

    The outfit reminds me of the costuming from “The Wicker Man”.

    Also, if I recall my Pythonian-history correctly, the technical name for the wooden cane is the “I’m not dead yet”-stick.

    • Jim September 7, 2010 at 11:51 PM - Reply

      It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that one.

      Bring out yer dead!

  3. Rafael Fabro September 29, 2010 at 10:11 AM - Reply

    Ever since I’ve saw this picture of the Plague Doctor when I was 5, I’ve always wanted this as a Halloween costume.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.