How PPEs looked like in 1912. Photo by Richard Massingham. Original image from National Museum of Health and Medicine, digitally enhanced by rawpixel.
Culture Spotlight

Were these the PPEs people sported in Manila during the time of the bubonic plague?

We kind of had our own plague doctor thing going on. By JAM PASCUAL
ANCX | May 08 2020

COVID-19 was not the Philippines’ first rodeo with a national health crisis. In 1912, the black plague appeared on our shores. The Philippine’s then-director of health and chief quarantine officer, Dr. Victor Heiser (known more for his work on leprosy), reported 17 cases of bubonic plague in the Philippines, 15 of which resulted in death. This was not the same as The Black Death that scourged Europe, but a bubonic plague that was traced back to the Yunnan province of China.

What many might not know is how our protective equipment looked like at the time, but here’s an image that’s been going around social media. It shows two Philippine plague researchers wearing what is said to be the personal protective equipment at the time. These masks look very different from the hazmats and N95 masks we’re used to seeing now. We don’t know why the guy on the left has a TV for a head like Prince Robot the IV from Saga, but we do know that this image is real. It was taken by Richard Massingham with a film camera, and the image comes from the National Museum of Health and Medicine in the US. The plague was detected at a freight warehouse of the Manila & Dagupan Railway Co., where several dead rats were found. The warehouse was disinfected with kerosene and carbonic solution.

Some have compared these face masks to the bird masks that plague doctors wore in parts of Europe during the 17th and 18th century, but they couldn’t be more different. When bird masks were common, the medical theory most in vogue was the miasma theory (different from germ theory, which we subscribe to now), which basically endorses the idea that plagues or highly contagious diseases were carried and transmitted by bad air. In order to combat this, the beaks of plague doctor masks were filled with theriac, a combination of aromatics that included cinnamon, myrrh, honey, lavender, and other such substances. That’s why plague doctor masks have long beaks—to hold all the theriac.

They also hold different symbolic charges. Plague doctors were considered to be portents of death, while these two researchers look like Daft Punk’s grandparents.