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Why Is Steampunk Plagued by Plague Doctors?

I'm sure that there are plenty of people out there who have no idea what a plague doctor is/was, so I'll start with an explanation.

Despite what we now consider to be their relatively fearsome appearance, they were originally just doctors, and they have existed for as long as there have been plagues. Our first record of plague doctors dates back to around the year 500 AD, well before the germ theory of disease. These doctors would be contracted by the government to treat everyone with the plague, rich or poor, and as a result, their lifespans were rather short. This is unsurprising, considering that any protective measures they took were almost certainly misguided or totally ineffective. Generally speaking, 90% of plague doctors died from the diseases they were trying to treat.

In 1619, Charles de L'Orme created what we now consider to be the distinctive "look" of a plague doctor. Here's a picture of a plague doctor from 1656:

The body was covered, head to toe, in an attempt to keep the disease at bay. In fact, the stick that the doctor above carries was used to prod patients so that they didn't actually have to be touched.

Meanwhile, the most distinctive part of the costume, the mask, was created in order to hold incense or herbs that ostensibly kept out the "bad air", and thus prevented the plague doctor from getting sick. Ideally, at least, as it didn't really work in practice. The end effect, of course, was somewhat terrifying, but it's important to note that underneath the strange costumes were men who were trying to cure the ill. Their pay was high (nearly four times higher than a regular doctor, by some accounts), but their mortality rate was also high.

We look at the masks as some sort of adornment, but for the plague doctor, they were strictly functional and highly unpleasant. In fact, wearing the plague doctor outfit must have been an absolutely horrible experience, but they did it anyway.

Were it not for their fearsome appearance, plague doctors might have been considered heroes. Granted, many of them were scam artists trying to cash in on the high pay, but some of them were genuinely trying to help.

So why is Steampunk absolutely inundated with plague doctors? On the surface, the plague doctor would seem to be ideologically opposite to Steampunk.

First of all, with the popularization of the germ theory of disease in the mid-1800's, plague doctors became more or less a thing of the past. Or at least, the plague doctor costume became very outdated. So plague doctors don't really fit into the time period that's often associated with Steampunk.

Second, plague doctors in many ways represent superstition over science. Breathing incense to keep away the sickness? Seems rather silly to a modern audience, and much more like nonsense than science.

However, it's important to remember that for the time period in which the plague doctor costume was invented, that was science at its finest. These people weren't shaking sticks and praying for cures, they were actively trying to treat patients using the latest medical science at their disposal. Granted, that was usually something like, "drink this mixture of herbs that I found in my yard", but it was still something.

Another thing that lends to their credibility as both scientists and objects of terror is that plague doctors were given permission to perform autopsies on plague victims in the hope of curing the disease. That may not sound like much right now, but at the time, autopsies were considered blasphemous, evil, terrible, etc. So in all likelihood, they were doing some solid work toward our understanding of anatomy, if nothing else.

Looked at from that perspective, you can almost see plague doctors as champions of science, or maybe martyrs for science would be more appropriate, given their mortality rate.

Another thing that Steampunks like are costumes, and few historically-accurate costumes are as great as the plague doctor's. I mean, come on... Plague doctors look like terrifying birds, and they poked people with sticks. What's not to love about that?

So is it really any wonder that the plague doctor has captured the imaginations of Steampunks? Men of science who were viewed with distrust and suspicion by the public, and who are now an obscure and forgotten part of history? No, you're right, that doesn't sound like something Steampunks would like at all.

Images from Tom Banwell, Yadoking, Rubber Gorilla, More Tom Banwell, Skinz-N-Hydez, and Chance Zero.

8 Comments

Well, as with the Plague Doctors, there are also Pirates in Steampunk, which are not very historically accurate either.

Pirates and Plague Doctors belong to "Clockpunk" if we want more alt history accuracy, but since the beggining both were taken from that retrofuturism now everybody just wear costumes from both, wich it is cool by myself ;)

That's actually a common misconception, Negr! About pirates, that is.

While we generally think of, say, the 17th or 18th centuries as the eras of piracy, the fact of the matter is that sea piracy continued right on through the 19th and 20th centuries, and is still alive and well today!

They may not swing cutlasses and have peg legs, but they definitely still attack ships and steal their cargo. They probably still drink rum, too.

One aspect that bears bringing up is that there is a definite portion of steampunk that emerged from the fetish scene, namely leather. (There may also be a bit of medical fetishism at play as well).

I can imagine that few leather fabricators would turn down a commission for such a cool concept as a plague doctor.

As steampunk heads more and more towards the mainstream, we mustn't lose sight of some of the darker and kinkier origins of our community. The last thing I'd like to see is full Disney-fication of the genre.

The dark tinges add so much charm. But then again, being French, and a countrywoman of a certain Marquis, perhaps my perception is a bit, how you say- colored? :-)

because steampunk is done by no life hipsters?

Thanks for sharing your enlightened perspective, Levi!

Look over at my picture on the icon.
That autta tell you why I need a big tall hat. You should also notice that I kinda like clocks.
I don't like the hands on clocks tho, but clocks are still cool and so are watches.

Thanks for sharing information on steampunk plague doctors.

I think the plague doctor look, could be chosen as an aesthetic style, for functional gas masks. Compare the plague doctor masks shown in your post to a late WW1, or WW2 era gas mask, like the one shown here http://cdn1.ima-usa.com/media/catalog/product/cache/1/image/88decfed4fba5801a7dc8e03047eb978/a/g/agg8523__1.jpg

Now compare that to quite a few of the plague doctor masks in your post, take note especially of the common glass ocular pieces in the steampunk masks, most of them look riveted to reinforce the seal, as was done on WW1 masks like this one https://img1.etsystatic.com/000/0/6165194/il_340x270.288494913.jpg

Especially with the second mask I could easily picture the elongated mouth piece and filter, slowly becoming a more compact, beak design, as technology gradually allows for the miniaturisation of filters, in a steampunk alternate timeline. It could also be considered a way to pay homage to the plague doctors, who in a way, were inventors as well, at least attempting to create what could be considered an early iteration of a gas mask to protect themselves, to the best of their ability.

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