Modern Day Plague Fashion

Sometime in the vicinity of 1630, a superstar physician by the name of Charles de l’Orme branched out into the realm of fashion design. By this time he’d enjoyed quite a few years of a brilliant medical career, serving as personal physician to several members of the famed House of Medici and a French king or two. If anyone in the medical field seemed to know what they were doing (and really, it’s only in hindsight that we know they definitely didn’t), this was the guy. He was kind of the Dr. Oz of his day.

Plague_doctor_drawing
Never fear, this overgrown omen of death is here to make sure you’re counted among the desperately ill. If you’re lucky, he might even bleed you or apply liquid mercury to your skin while he’s here.

And one, among many, of the medical challenges he and his fellow physicians faced was the frequent recurrence and constant threat of Bubonic plague. In 1630, there hadn’t been a full-on pandemic level outbreak of the plague in quite a while, the previous major one occurring nearly three hundred years earlier. But it still existed in pockets, and Charles de l’Orme had some ideas for how physicians could be ready if the worst should happen.

He designed the first personal protective equipment for the large numbers of plague doctors who would be on the front line of any impending pandemic. The design included a waxed leather coat covered in animal fat, leggings, boots, gloves, a wide brimmed black hat, and a mask that can only be described as the stuff of nightmares. In case that wasn’t enough there was also a cane, allegedly used for keeping sick patients at a safe social distance, or perhaps beating the disease-causing demons from out of them.

The freakish mask included glass eye coverings, a beak-like appendage containing herbs and spices for freshening the dangerous miasma out of the air, and openings wide enough to allow for easy breathing of plenty of contagion.

dr smurf
The less frightening garb of the modern, much more competent, plague doctor. Still a little scary, but much better.

By the time 1665 rolled around and brought with it the Great Plague of London and the deaths of an estimated 100,000 people in that city alone, huge numbers of plague doctors, most of whom didn’t actually have much in the way of medical knowledge even by 1665 standards, were suited up and ready to become a significant portion of that number.

Fortunately, our personal protective equipment has improved a great deal since then, as has our epidemiological understanding, and those medical professionals well trained to make good use of both. We also, thankfully, have given up on the terror-inducing, overgrown crow heads.

I’m very thankful for that each time I don a much friendlier-looking cloth mask and venture to the grocery store. It’s still an odd sensation to be there, and at least for me, not a very uplifting one. It’s difficult to communicate, or even offer a friendly smile, from behind a mask. That little covering adds an extra sense of gravity and an eerie sense loneliness to the experience.

homemade mask
I might be smiling. But you’ll never know.

I know the end of this, while not necessarily in sight, is coming. In my corner of world our number of cases are still climbing, but our projections suggest the curve has been flattened and that when we reach the worst, our medical community will be ready and able to manage it.

I also know that unlike the plague doctors of the seventeenth century whose primary role was one of data collection more than medical treatment, our epidemiologists are as on top of this thing as they can be. To borrow a slightly adapted line from The Martian, they are sciencing the spit out of this. And they’re doing it much more fashionably.

A Plague of Gesundheits

Sometime over the past few weeks, influenza descended in full force on our fair city, stretching across the region, flooding our doctors’ offices, our schools, and our homes. One area school even recently reported nearly 200 student absences in a single day. I probably don’t need to tell you there’s been a lot of sneezing, and a fair number of “God bless yous.”

For quite a while now my social media feed has been filled with friends lamenting that their households have fallen victim, warning those whose children have had social contact with theirs might just be next, and offering a sort of wish for good health in spite of the odds.

sickbed
Does it make me a bad person that I think this is actually kind of a relief from the political squabbling? photo credit: BC Gov Photos Take a shot at protecting yourself and others from the flu via photopin (license)

And, really, that’s what that wonderful phrase “God bless you,” is really probably all about. Though no one can say for certain exactly where it came from (even Snopes.com, which I have to assume at least tried), the most often related story attributes the custom to Pope Gregory I who took over for Pelagius II, when the latter fell victim to the plague in 590.

This was the tail end of what history remembers as the Plague of Justinian, possibly the first recorded instance of bubonic plague (like you might even today encounter in a National Park), or at least something related to it. The exact bug behind the pandemic probably doesn’t matter all that much. What we do know is that it killed quickly, and it started with a sneeze.

Gregory didn’t exactly want to be named Pope, but he received the title by acclimation, and soon set to work ministering to the stricken people of Rome. He prayed for deliverance from sickness and encouraged repentance, even organizing a large procession to the Vatican, in which the faithful gathered in a large coughing, sneezing crowd in order to share in worship and germs.

Allegedly Gregory also began the practice of offering a blessing for good health upon a person who sneezed, thereby praying away the plague. The Justinian Plague didn’t really extend beyond Gregory’s stint as Pope, so maybe there was something to his approach. Or maybe the bug had simply run its course through the population.

Portrait of Pope Gregory I
If he were around today, I’ve no doubt Pope Gregory would encourage holy flu vaccination. By Unknown – Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Either way, the tradition of saying, “God bless you,” or wishing someone good health (with a Gesundheit or similar expression) is so deeply ingrained in our behavior pattern now, it’s hard to remain silent when we hear a sneeze.

The question is, I suppose, does it help? Sadly, I don’t know that anyone has ever researched that. But what does help is vaccination. Now, fortunately for our family, we are well vaccinated folks, so when it was our turn last week our symptoms were relatively mild. We dealt with a few aches, some low-grade fevers, a good helping of fatigue, and plenty of coughing and sneezing and gunk. But all in all, it wasn’t too bad, with only my oldest developing a secondary ear infection, easily taken care of with an antibiotic.

washhands
All I can say is there is not nearly enough of this going around at that middle school. photo credit: BC Gov Photos Take a shot at protecting yourself and others from the flu via photopin (license)

For us, then, this week has been a return to our regularly scheduled program. Everyone has gone to school or work, and my oldest is off and running, heading into the next big thing. For him, that means making a movie with several of his friends to enter into the school district’s upcoming film festival.

For weeks now they’ve been working on a script and costumes, rehearsing lines, and practicing stunts. I admit I’m not entirely sure what the film is about. The plot keeps changing, though I’m fairly certain it involves a wizard or two. Their biggest hurdle in getting it finished has been that members of the crew keep getting sick.

But I’m looking forward to seeing the completed project and I imagine it will work out just fine. After all, the first surviving film copyrighted in the US, now considered by the Library of Congress as “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” consists of nothing more than 5 seconds of a man sneezing.

Gesundheit!

 

And speaking of ongoing creative projects, I currently have two books projects underway that will be published this year. If you’re interested, you can check them out on this recently re-installed book page.