Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Aaron. Aaron Wonders, “Why did plague doctors look like birds?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Aaron!

How do you avoid spreading germs? Do you cover your mouth when you cough? Wash your hands often? You probably already know these are important practices. They can help keep you from getting sick!

Believe it or not, people haven’t always known about germs. For many years, even doctors didn’t really understand how illnesses spread. They did many things to avoid getting sick that wouldn’t make any sense today. Some doctors even tried dressing like birds.

Birds? That’s right. In 1619, Charles de Lorme designed a special uniform for doctors treating plague patients. This was long after the Black Death that killed millions of people in the 14th Century. However, the plague outbreaks of the 17th Century were still very serious for the European continent. 

The uniform designed by de Lorme was a long coat, gloves, boots, and a wide-brimmed hat. The doctors also carried long, wooden canes so they wouldn’t have to touch patients. The most recognizable feature of the uniform, though, was the mask. 

The mask made the plague doctors look like birds. It had a long beak that extended about six inches from the face. There were also two eyeholes covered in glass and two nostril holes.

Are you WONDERing what purpose this mask served? At the time, doctors didn’t know about germs. They believed the plague was spread by bad air. Any air that had an unpleasant odor was suspect. For that reason, the doctors put herbs and flowers in the beak of their masks. They often used mint, roses, or carnations.

Sometimes, doctors even burned the flowers and herbs before putting them in the beak. This made smoke that filled the mask for a short time. They believed this would remove the bad smells from the air before the doctor breathed it, preventing the doctors from catching the plague.

Did it work? Well, not exactly. The germs that cause plague actually do sometimes travel through the air, but good-smelling herbs don’t stop them. Many doctors still got sick by breathing through the nostril holes in their masks. 

However, some forms of plague only spread through bites from fleas and rodents. The doctor’s uniform did help protect them from this hazard. However, it was largely the coat, gloves, boots, and hat that did so—not the bird mask.

Today, scientists and doctors know a lot more about how to stop germs from spreading. To avoid spreading illnesses, people can cover their mouths when coughing and sneezing. It also helps to wash your hands often and avoid eating or drinking after others. And of course, cooking and storing food correctly goes a long way toward preventing illness.

What would you think if your doctor dressed like a bird? The plague doctor’s uniform was pretty scary for people who saw it in person. It meant they were very sick. Today, you’re much more likely to see the plague doctor uniform as a Halloween costume. It’s also common at some festivals, such as the Carnival of Venice. 

Standards: NGSS.LS1.A, C3.D2.His.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.SL.1, CCRA.W.2, CCRA.W.4, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2

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