Plague Doctor: 1827?

I’m continuing to research the plague doctor’s costume; including a small but interesting new discovery that I believe I’m the first to make. My first of two follow-ups however is just a quick post intended to help those interesting in the above image, which seems to have lost its proper sourcing. It generally shows up online without attribution or, in this case, as ‘source unknown.’ Well, no longer! All I had to go on was the publisher’s information at the bottom of some versions of the image, i.e. ‘Published, August 1827, by Callow & Wilson, London’ – but with (if I do say so myself) some black-belt level Google-Fu, I was able to turn up the original source, which is ‘Mems. Maxim, and Memoirs’ by William Wadd (1827, p. 109).

This is important because when we critically assess the actual source, the image becomes of questionable utility. It isn’t contemporary – it’s actually supposed to illustrate the look and approach of a previous and bygone age: 

‘Among other regulations, in some countries the physicians were ordered to dress in a peculiar costume, of which the annexed sketch is a representation, and the surgeons were to wear something resembling the scapulars of the friars.’

The author was apparently not aware of the likely contemporary use of the later style of mask in lazaretto plague hospitals (see my previous article). The artist seems to have combined the engraving featured in Manget’s 1721 ‘Traité de la peste’ (itself an update on the 1656 version) – with similar hood, cane, and gloves – but gives the doctor knee-length buttoned-up coat and leather over-trousers of this other c.1721 satirical depiction by Johann Melchior Füssli (the linked version is unattributed and undated, but Marion Ruisinger’s chapter ‘Fact or Fiction: Ein kritischer Blick auf den »Schnabeldoktor«’ in the 2019 book ‘Pest!’ gives the correct attribution).

Above: L0025226 Plague doctor as a quack Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images Quackery: a plague doctor as a quack, anon., n.d. Aesculape Published: 1932 Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Below: Manget’s 1721 version of the plague doctor (Wikimedia Commons –,_Trait%C3%A9_de_la_peste_(1721);_WHO_version.png)

This 1827 engraving is sometimes associated with a mention by a Cardinal Giovanni Carlo de’ Medici that doctors in Florence in the mid-17th century had to wear ‘a knee-length coat’, which apparently comes from the article ‘La peste dell’anno 1631’ in Bollettino Storico Empolese by M. Bini (1961-1962: 5, p. 273). This may be true, but is of limited relevance to any of these three artistic renditions, and especially not the 1827 ‘lash-up’ of the two others. 

So, not only is this not a period depiction, it’s clearly a rip-off of two actual period depictions, one of which was satirical. The sources that students of the plague doctor have to work with are already problematic – engraved by artists hundreds of miles away, likely based on hearsay information – without introducing this anachronistic effort. It does of course have some value as a Georgian impression of what was, in Britain at any rate, already considered a relic of the unenlightened past. So were masks like this really in use at lazaretti in Italy in the early 19th century as I suggested in my previous article? Or were those tatty-looking bulbous hood masks actually older; more like early-mid 18th century? Perhaps contemporary with the waxed fabric and leather ones now in the German museums? It’s hard to say without an original to look at, and even then, it would be hard to date them (just as the German examples evade a firm date). 


2 thoughts on “Plague Doctor: 1827?

  1. Very interesting, thank you. I have that book in my library. Wadd was a collector of medical prints, so he could have had the other images you suggest in his collection. He was also an accomplished artist and illustrated his own books. It appears to be signed WW, although there is a third mark, possibly shorthand for ‘W’add?

    1. I’m glad that you found it interesting, and thank you for the information on Wadd; it would indeed make sense for him to have one or more of the source images in his own collection.

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