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The Miasma Theory and 17th Century Face Masks

Throughout history human beings have used masks for various purposes.From the holy Ritual masks to the eerie funeral masks and the artistic masquerades, masks are versatile. Masks have been used throughout history as a societal symbol. Either to show you are higher in the social ladder or to shame criminals and people in the bottom of the social ladder.

image showing venetian plague mask biotrivia
Featured image for plague article P.C: Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

The Plague Doctor’s Mask

The earliest known use of a face mask as protection from diseases is from the plague Doctor costume of 17th century Europe.

Before the acceptance of the Germ theory of Diseases, there was the Miasma theory. According to this theory

“all diseases were spread by foul smell arising from rotting organic matter.”

Miasma theory

This proposed foul smell was called miasma and it was believed to contain the infectious agent miasmata. The term miasma itself means pollution and it was because of this belief that Malaria, a disease spread by Mosquitoes(Vector) is called “Bad Air – Mal-Aria ” instead of “Naughty mosquito”.

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The plague doctor costume was designed especially to keep the foul smell away. The face mask had glass pieces to see through and a bird beak like compartment. The mask was fastened to the doctor’s face with straps coming from the sides. Now these 17th century doctors did not wear these masks for the same reason we do. Today we wear masks to prevent pathogens from entering our body through our nose and mouth.
But these doctors used the mask to prevent themselves from smelling bad smells and to ensure a supply of good smell. This is the reason why the bird beak face mask had a compartment to store various good smelling substances like dried flowers, vinegar and other aromatic substances to keep the dreaded foul smell away. [Begone Thot]

The Plague Doctor Costume

The miasma theory was fundamentally wrong, but it still worked. For example, Cholera is spread by Vibrio cholerae a pathogen present in contaminated water and contaminated water often has a foul smell.
So we can say scholars those days came up with this theory because they did not know about the presence of tiny invisible organisms trying to eat us from the inside with whom our immune system was waging a relentless war, until when a Dutch dude tried to see what was in a drop of water with his weird thingamajig. (Whoa, that was a really long line.)

The Miasma theory led to the renovation of several cities such as London and Paris to keep the Miasma away which led to the building of better sewage systems. This further led to increased sanitation and less disease spread, a lucky side effect. Among the believers of the Miasma theory was the famous “Lady with the Lamp” Florence Nightingale. The crimean war nurse is said to have strived to keep the hospitals as clean as possible and fresh smelling too. Although being wrong the theory helped keep people healthy.

The world's oldest face mask

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