Personal protective equipment plague prevention suit: a brief history

Before Covid-19, personal protective equipment (PPE) was not widely known to the general public. It appeared to be quite an unusual outfit for people when the novel coronavirus was first detected. Personal protective equipment is protective equipment that soldiers, firefighters, chemists, miners, and health workers typically use while on duty to protect themselves from physical injury or microbial infection. Nowadays, we are constantly researching the use of PPE in healthcare facilities around the world. Most doctors and nurses wear the full set of PPE (according to the WHO standard) during their shifts, and this has become their daily wear and tear. The general public who are not in direct contact with Covid-19 patients are required to wear at least one face mask and face shield or goggles. However, we know little about the historical development of PPE.

Now let me take you back to the time of the “black death” or what is commonly referred to as the “plague”. During this period, doctors believed in a theory of miasma. According to this rather old theory, “corrupted air” enters the body and creates a poison making man the victim of the plague (Byrne, 2012). During the 6th century, the plague pandemic wreaked havoc in the ancient Roman city of Constantinople. In addition to the 6th century, the plagues of the 14th and 19th centuries were recorded as the greatest global pandemics. About 330 million people have perished (suffered terrible deaths) as a result of the plague pandemics. To save themselves from the terrible clutches of the plague in 1619, a “plague preventive costume” was made by a French doctor named Charles Delorme.

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The plague prevention costume consisted of a long overcoat that covered the body from neck to ankle. In addition, gloves, boots and a hat were made of waxed leather to prevent outside air from entering the body (Paranque, 2020). The costume also consisted of a mask that covered the entire head and had a bird’s beak half a foot long to cover the nose and mouth. It was loaded with 55 different herbal scents so that before the polluted air entered the lungs it could be purified from contact with the protective herbs. (Blakemore, 2020).

It is believed that Charles Delorme who designed the plague prevention suit was indeed the pioneer of PPE in medical science. A modified version of this costume was spotted during the plague of Marseille (named after a city in Western Europe where the last major epidemic occurred) (Paranque, 2020). The long nose and hat were not part of the costume worn by doctors in France and Italy at this time. However, whether the costume played a role in preventing plague outbreaks or not is a whole other debate altogether. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that over the century the costume has gradually adapted and the perception of it has shifted from fear to an object of necessity.

In 1899, a French doctor who researched the germ of tuberculosis invented a face mask made of six layers of gauze so that people could protect themselves from the germ. Many people today believe that this is the first surgical mask. During the Manchu Plague in China in 1910-11, Wu Liande also created a mask with cotton inserted between two layers of gauze, which was widely accepted by physicians and became known as the “Wu mask” ( Global Times, 2020). When the Spanish flu first spread in 1918, people also wore masks. During the Great Smog of London, a modified version of Wu’s mask was also used. During World War I, gas masks were invented to protect soldiers from the effects of chlorine gas. In the photos we can see how dresses, masks and gloves have changed dramatically during the twentieth century.

The use of PPE has gradually increased in chemical and biological laboratories. With the advancement of medical science, PPE has been adapted to meet our needs and preferences. Recently, medical science has invented more aesthetically pleasing, comfortable and disposable PPE that is now widely adorned by physicians treating Covid-19 patients. With the widespread outbreak of SARS, MERS-CoV, Ebola and novel coronaviruses in just a few years in the 21st century, the design and fabrics of PPE have changed in quite innovative ways from the very outfit that Delorme designed. . Thanks to new scientific breakthroughs, our world is definitely changing for the better.

The author is Senior Research Assistant, Center of Excellence for Implementation and Scaling Science, BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University.

The references:

Byrne, PJ (2012). Black Death Encyclopedia. ABC-CLIO, LLC.

Blakemore, E. (March 13, 2020). Why the plague doctors wore these strange beaked masks. national


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Paranque, E. (May 20, 2020). Charles Delorme: French physician and inventor of the “plague

prevention costume ‘. UK Art.

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The evolution of face masks. (February 12, 2020). Global Time, Art, Life.

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