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South African Dental Journal

versão On-line ISSN 0375-1562
versão impressa ISSN 0011-8516

S. Afr. dent. j. vol.76 no.2 Johannesburg Mar. 2021




"Join together - the wolf only snatches the stray bird that flies away from the flock"



NH Wood

Managing editor. Email:




Medical mask-wearing has a long history dating back to the popular beaded masks worn by doctors in the 17th century during the plague epidemic. They believed that the disease spread through miasmas - bad smells that wafted through the air. Their clothing was thus intended to protect them from these airborne diseases.

The original "beak doctor" costume was believed to have been invented by the French doctor Charles de Lorme in 1619 who advocated doctors and surgeons wear a full head-to-toe protective garment.

It consisted of an ankle-length overcoat, boots, a wide rimmed hat (that indicated their profession), and a birdlike beak mask. The mask had glass openings for the eyes and a curved beak shaped like a bird's beak with straps that held it in front of the doctor's nose.

The beak had two small nose holes which acted like a type of respirator, and was filled with sweet or strong smelling aromatic items. These included dried flowers, herbs, camphor, or a vinegar-soaked sponge. Doctors believed the herbs would ward off the odours that spread the plague, and prevent them from becoming infected.

In addition, they used wooden canes to point out areas needing attention and to examine patients without touching them. The canes were also used to keep people away, to remove clothing from plague victims without having to touch them, and to take a patient's pulse!

In the early 1900's, prior to the influenza epidemic, only surgeons and nurses wore masks when they were treating contagious patients. However, during the flu epidemic, cities around the world passed mandatory masking orders. This practice was embraced by the American public as "an emblem of public spiritedness and discipline."

Today we are once again facing a global pandemic that has seen the resurgence of mandatory mask wearing as well as the use of hand sanitisers, and social distancing. We now need to all "flock together" and adhere to these measures, known as 'the new normal' if we are to survive and thrive.




1. Bauer, S. Wise, the Story of the World Activity Book Two: The Middle Ages: From the Fall of Rome to the Rise of the Renaissance, Peace Hill Press, 2003, ISBN 0-9714129-4-4. Accessed at:         [ Links ]


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