HHH column: In search of Doctor Zero by Herbert Mattie

The HHH column is a monthly blog in which History, Health & Healing members share their thoughts on research, current affairs, or anything to do with medical history. Each edition is written by a different member – in due time, we hope to offer everybody a chance to publish a contributionThis month, the floor is for Herbert Mattie, art historian and artist based in The Netherlands. His online Doctor Schnabel’s Plague Museum is part of a transdisciplinary project that centers around the plague doctor’s costume. In this column, Herbert takes us on an investigation of Doctor Beak, the well-known doctor with the raven-shaped mask, one of medical history’s most iconic yet misunderstood images.

Herbert Mattie

In search of Doctor Zero

When people dress up for Halloween or a cosplay event in the attire of a plague doctor, they intuitively start moving in a different way. Their steps slow down, they become sinisterly silent and they start ominously pointing their cane at people, reminiscent of Death in Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal or of the Ghost of Christmas yet to come. Why? The masked figure is a doctor, after all, supposed to bring medical care to suffering patients. Yet, we suspect that underneath his dark cloak is not a healer, but a reaper. His mask, shaped like the beak of a raven, the bird of bad omen that feeds on carrion, tops off the eeriness. These are the traits we associate with him today, and so did the public when the first images of Doctor Beak were published in 1656. Nobody had seen him with their own eyes. There was only an extraordinary picture, that was reproduced again and again, spreading like a rumour.

The earliest known plague doctor depiction. Woodcut broadside published by Sebastiano Zecchini, Rome & Perugia, 1656. British Museum 1880,0710.522.

That this rumour has converted into a firmly established assumption, even among historians, became obvious again a few months ago. In June 2022, a study of DNA taken from the teeth of 14th-century people in Kyrgyzstan identified them as the first known victims of the same plague that would ravage Europe a decade later under the name of the “Black Death”. The discovery was published in Nature Magazine, and it swiftly found its way to dozens of newspapers, magazines and blogs. Since nobody likes an infographic of a molecular analysis, this generated an overload of appearances of the notorious doctor. Images varied from one of the seventeenth-century ‘originals’ to the Medico della peste mask from Venetian tourist shops. The sloppiest picture editors went for a modern steampunk/cybergoth hodgepodge. The virtual Plague Museum, of which I am founder, curator, art director and gardener, enriched its virtual collection of plague doctor depictions with over twenty examples only in the first week after the original publication. There is no remedy against the contagious disease of misinformation.

Tracing the image back to its origins, like the researchers of the ancient plague genome have so successfully done, is a problematic undertaking. It is only due to coincidence that the handful of depictions we know have survived. Those original images are “broadsides”, printed in huge numbers in their time and subsequently thrown away in equally large amounts, making it more than likely that we will never be able to identify “Doctor Zero”. If he had something in common with his descendants, chances are that he was another popular print made for the market, not with the purpose of informing or instructing physicians. These images fall in the same category as the famous hoaxes of the woman who gave birth to a rabbit or the stranding of a sea monster. That those images were truthful or not was of no concern to the publishers, only their ability to sell was. And sellable they were, for people found the sinister mask freaky and fascinating. They still possess those qualities for today’s viewers, so it is no wonder that the beaky doctors are the top sellers at Alamy’s and Getty’s for images illustrating the plague.

The downside of this success is that the masked plague doctor misleads our views on the protective gear that was employed in reality, and this adds to an erroneous understanding of conceptions of contagion in history. Like opinions about the mechanisms behind the spread of the plague, actual plaguewear differed from time to time, from country to country, and from person to person. It included robes of perfumed waxcloth, gowns with extra long sleeves, gloves of which the index and middle finger were cut off, a dried toad in a pouch and even a “onesie” made of goatskin. The PPE that predominated for centuries was a vinegar soaked sponge, held in front of the nose and mouth. Importantly, this protective equipment was not exclusively used by doctors, but also by priests, police officers, disinfectors, and carriers.

There can be several reasons why doctors were the only officials depicted in a protective outfit. One is the greater contrast with their normal attire, as the plague garment had all but the elegance they typically displayed and that was considered a proof of their scholarship. Where doctors were expected to behave in accordance with Hippocrates’ advice to be calm, well-kept and serious, these apparitions were distant, frightening and dressed like lunatics. Still, often plague doctors were no doctors at all, but rather fortune seekers with little or no medical education, hired by city councils after the real doctors had fled or died. They earned themselves a reputation of acting as scavengers, hence the raven-mask.

As long as we do not know who Doctor Zero was, we cannot be sure about his real profession or even his age and nationality, but we can reconstruct the path along which he evolved into an icon and a symbol of the plague itself: from an allegorical figure in the seventeenth century, to the popular stock character he is nowadays, which remains as intriguing as the original images were. His resemblance to actual plague doctors in whatever era should not be overestimated.

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