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.
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.
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.
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.