In the time of the plague, it was believed that bad smells were the principal cause of disease. This theory has been since disproved by the scientific theory of germs. Plague doctors therefore wore special costumes to protect them from the infection.
The doctor’s costume consisted of an ankle-length coat, boots and a wide brimmed leather hat to indicate his profession. He also wore a bird-like beak mask filled with strong smelling substances.
The mask had glass openings for the eyes and a curved beak shape that was held in front of the doctor’s nose with straps. The beak had two small nose holes and could be filled with dried flowers (such as roses and carnations), herbs (like lavender, mint and garlic), spices, camphor or even a vinegar sponge.
It was believed that the herbs would keep ‘evil’ smells away, preventing the doctor to become infected.
To make sure they stayed safe, the doctors never touched their patients – they even used a wooden cane to take a sick person’s pulse! The canes were also used to keep people away from them, to examine patients and to remove clothing from plague victims’ bodies. It's probably this practice, instead of their masks, that kept them from being infected.
These doctors will certainly not be remembered for their considerate bedside manner!