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06 April 2020

Plague Chic: fashion in the times of the Virus


Paul_Fürst _Der_Doctor_Schnabel_von_Rom_(coloured_version)

Colour copper engraving of Doctor Schnabel [i.e Dr Beak], a plague doctor in seventeenth-century Rome, published by Paul Fürst, ca. 1656


As the country is in the grip of the COVID19 outbreak the British Library has made the decision to close our physical spaces in London and Boston Spa for the present.  The pandemic continues to affect the world with Italy being the worst hit country in Europe so far. Italy though is no stranger to plagues and has survived much worse. During the Fifteenth Century the bubonic plague swept the land leading Venice to use the island of Lazzaretto Vecchio for the first lazaret or quarantine colony. Indeed, it’s been noted that the very word ‘quarantine’ comes from the Italian quarantine, meaning forty or forties, because potential plague victims returning from trade journeys would be quarantined for up to 40 days.  Currently wearing a facemask outdoors is becoming de rigueur, and yet to quote an article by Christos Lynteris;  “What this popular culture idiom may lead us to overlook, however, is that this pedigree of anti-epidemic PPEs was already part of their emergence at the turn of the century.”* During the second wave of bubonic plague epidemics in the Seventeenth Century we see the emergence of these anti-epidemic personal protection equipment, or as it was known at the time: the plague costume.


The “beak doctor" costume

These proto-modern hazmat suits typically consisted of an ankle-length leather or wax-canvas garment with large crystal glasses, gloves, boots and a brim hat. Most distinctive was the half a foot-long bird like beak with two holes on each side near the nostrils for respiration. The beak was filled with aromatic spices like camphor, mint, cloves, and myrrh plus dried flowers such as roses, carnations, or a vinegar sponge. Doctors believed the strong smells of the herbs would combat the contagious miasma or the "evil" smells of the plague and prevent them from becoming infected.


Photograph of 17th-century plague doctor mask from Austria or Germany on display in Berlin's Deutsches Historisches Museum  wikimedia commons


Medical historians have attributed the invention of the "beak doctor" costume to the French physician at Louis XIII’s court named Charles de l’Orme.  He is thought to have constructed the medico della peste mask during the 1619 plague outbreak in Paris. Made out of saffian (sheepskin or goatskin) with a beak containing garlic so that the “evil air” could not infect the practicing plague doctor. These doctors also carried a stick or ‘wand’ used to examine patients without touching them, while also acting as a deterrent to any one infected that attempted to approach.


The costume became entrenched in European culture during the plague of 1656, which killed nearly half a million people in Rome and Naples. Ichnographically etched into popular consciousness, the plague doctors look was associated with death and a symbol of mortality became a common sight in Venice.  As such the costume inspired a commedia dell'arte  character called Il Medico della Peste (the Plague Doctor), who wears a distinctive plague doctor's mask.  Additionally, it inspired masks worn for the annual Venetian carnival. Typically, the distinctive mask is white, consisting of a hollow beak and round eye-holes and is still worn during the carnival to this day, which sadly this year was cut short due to coronavirus fears.


Plague maskTypical Venetian Carnival mask


The function of masks has a long history, from a biomedical portable anti-epidemic ‘accessory’ to a symbolic signifier with talismanic properties. The plague costume reminds us that even medical protective clothing is touched by the ever-changing cycle of fashion.  The evolution of this costume gave us the face mask in its current form; it is a utilitarian version of that original outfit. In its developed form, the facemask aims at protecting the wearer from airborne bacterial infection and thus visualizing the civic duty involved in containing the spread of diseases.

As a characteristic of material culture, face worn masks function across many levels not just a practical function but a symbolic one affecting public perceptions and social impact. Back at the beginning of this year face masks worn in public were a rare sight, yet today it could be said they have become a common accessory to high street fashion demonstrating the cultural and historical impact besides. Furthermore, as Lynteris suggests; “This was an apparatus that did not simply protect its wearers from infection. It also immersed them and their immediate social environment into a performance of medical reason and hygienic modernity.”


In centuries gone by the appearance of one of these human-sized birds on a doorstep indicated that death was near, it must have been a terrifying sight for the poor sick person.  With the power of imagination, let us all hope that this beaked gown figure will come back to take this virus away. In the meantime, research by experts at the World Health Organisation continues to analyse the effectiveness of wearing facemask in the prevention of spreading the virus.



*See Christos Lynteris (2018) Plague Masks: The Visual Emergence of Anti-Epidemic Personal Protection Equipment, Medical Anthropology, 37:6, 442-457, DOI: 10.1080/01459740.2017.1423072

Plus JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, Volume 34 1900.

02 April 2020

Publishers offering coronavirus articles free.

A pair of hands in blue disposable gloves frames a green petri dish with a model coronavirus in the centre
Image by danielfoster437 under a CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0 license

As the coronavirus pandemic continues to dominate news and lock down our daily lives, most of the major academic publishers have agreed to make their relevant articles available free online, even if they would otherwise be published with a paywall. Here is a set of links to various publisher sites, whether you are working on it yourself or looking for something to pass the time with.

American Chemical Society

American College of Physicians

British Medical Journal

Cambridge University Press

Cell Press

Chinese Medical Association



European Respiratory Society



Future Science Group

Healthcare Infection Society

Institute of Physics

Journal of the American Medical Association


The Lancet

National Academy of Sciences

New England Journal of Medicine

Oxford University Press

Royal Society



Springer Nature


Wolters Kluwer

01 April 2020

Clouds: How Luke Howard linked Weather Lore and Natural Philosophy

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
   William Wordsworth

A greyscale image of a painting of a large fluffy cloud
Figure 1 Cumulus is one of the three main genera of cloud formations proposed by Luke Howard in 1802 and still used today. Image from Howard, L. 1832 (second edition). On the modification of clouds, etc. page 33. Philo. Mag. Pl. VI. Vol. XVII. DRT Digital Store 1393.k.16.(1.)

 William Wordsworth’s (1770-1850) ‘lonely as a cloud’ poem was conceived in April 1802 on a spring day walk in the Lake District. A few months later, in December 1802, a pharmacist and amateur meteorologist, Luke Howard (1772-1864) delivered a paper in London, on the dynamics of cloud formations. The two events were unrelated but their futures became intertwined. Howard’s essay ‘On the modifications of Clouds’ (1803) resonated deeply within learned circles, including arts and sciences. Clouds soon became the objects of fascination and scrutinizing attention. Articulating the order of the enigmatic sky-scape inspired poets, painters and scientists. The "lonely as a cloud" simile in Wordsworth’s poem, which he composed and published (1807) years after his Lake District walk, is also a nod to Howard’s ideas.  Within sciences a century later, the International Cloud Atlas (2017) of the World Meteorological Organization still draws on Howard’s taxonomy. 

What is it about Howard’s approach to clouds that made his essay so influential? Various characteristics have been identified so far; a few are highlighted here.
Howard likened cloud formations to the eloquence of human facial expression:
Clouds 'are subject to certain distinct modifications, produced by the general causes which effect all the variations of the atmosphere: they are commonly as good visible indications of the operation of these causes, as is the countenance of the state of a person's mind or body.' (Howard 1830:3)
By relating clouds to people, especially the face, the most personal feature of an individual, Howard captured the imagination of his readers: a truly powerful captatio benevolentiae at the time of growing interest in the self and its romantic reflections in the world.
In addition to making clouds personal, Howard drew on sources of knowledge that had authority on the weather in different parts of the society in the early 19th century England. One was popular knowledge or weather lore based on the practical knowledge of weather-wise farmers and mariners whose life depended on their ability of reading the clouds and other weather signs. The other was the theoretical knowledge of natural philosophers whose ambitions to account for weather changes employed experimental methods of the fledgling sciences.
'It is the frequent observation of the countenance of the sky, and of its connection with the present and ensuing phaenomena, that constitutes the antient [sic] and popular meteorology. The want of this branch of knowledge renders the prediction of the philosopher (who is attending only to his instruments may be said only to examine the pulse of the atmosphere) less generally successful than those of the weather-wise mariner or husbandman.' (Howard 1830:3)
Howard recognized the challenges of linking the two, translating between different ways of knowing, especially when mariners’ and farmers’ tacit knowledge was considered as  ‘incommunicable’:
'But as this experience is usually consigned only to the memory of the possessor [Howard refers here to mariners, farmers], in a confused mass of simple aphorisms, the skill resulting from it is in a manner of incommunicable; for, however valuable these links when in connexion with the rest of the chain, they often serve, when taken singly, only to mislead; and the power of connecting them, in order to form a judgement upon occasion, resides only in the mind before which their relations have passed, through perhaps imperceptibly, in review.' (Howard 1830:4)
The above description makes Howard a forerunner of the still on-going debate on the commensurability of practice-based and scientific knowledge.

Howard was fully aware of the obstacles presented by the isolation of different knowledge traditions and of the necessity of communication. This is why he proposed a common vocabulary:
'In order to enable the meteorologist to apply the key of analysis to the experience of others, as well as to record his own with brevity and precision, it may perhaps be allowable to introduce a methodical nomenclature, applicable to the various forms of suspended water, or, in other words, to the modification of cloud.'  (Howard 1830:4)
An image of three clouds of different types, described in the caption
Figure 2 Cirro-cumulus, cirro-stratus, cumulo-stratus, from top to down. Cirrus, stratus and cumulus, represent Howard’s three main genera of cloud formations. They can transform into each other and form composites. Image from Howards, L. 1832 (second edition). On the modification of clouds, etc. page 33. Philo. Mag. Pl. VII. Vol. XVII. DRT Digital Store 1393.k.16.(1.)

By linking practical knowledge and experimental scientific approaches, Howard highlighted an important similarity: both assumed order and predictability in the formation of clouds, or ‘nubification’, as Howard referred to the process. Both assumed that cloud formation was driven by many more factors than the ‘sport of winds’. Landscape features in the following example: when the morning sun warms up the mist, which sits in the valley as a stratus, formed during the night, a cloud can form as a nascent cumulus over the meadow, an indicator of fair weather:
‘At nebulae magis ima petunt, campoque recumbent.’ (But the clouds seek more the vales, and rest upon the plain)
Virgil Georgicon. Liber I. line 401 quoted in Howard on page 8 in the section of describing cirro-cumulus. (Translated by J.B. Greenough, 190)
Howard’s invocation of Virgil further strengthened his argument for connecting popular and scientific knowledge. Quotations from Virgil’s Georgics Book 1, that covers knowledge of farming and weather recognized in 1st century BC in ancient Rome, gave further credibility to practice-based knowledge. Howard’s readers who grew up on Latin antiquities recognized the Georgics as classic text and this familiarity may have given greater appeal to Howard’s ideas.
Howard’s cloud book is very short, only 32 pages, and illustrated with the author’s watercolours. The British Library holds three editions (1803, 1830, 1894), of which the second is digitized, and freely accessible remotely through Explore (Digital Store 1393.k.16.(1.))
Cloud spotting remains a passion, and Howard’s taxonomy of cirrus, stratus and cumulus still guides cloud observation in the 21st century.
This spring, in our isolation, looking up at the sky from our window, clouds may present the only contact we have with the natural world. The ever-changing cloud formations may give us both a sense of space and a sense of belongingness; even more so if we share our observations on citizen science initiatives, such as BBC Weather Watchers.
A photograph of a sky filled with fluffy cumulus clouds over the roofs of suburban houses
Figure 3 Sky-scape with cumulus over London (Photo: Andrea Deri, 31st March 2020)

In our bliss of solitude, dreaming on our couch with Wordsworth, may our wondering about clouds also extend to Luke Howard.
‘For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.’
A handwritten poem on a piece of paper
Figure 4 A section of a hand-written manuscript of William Wordsworth's poem 'I wandered lonely as a cloud'. © The British Library Board 065858. BL Add. MS 47864

Boon, R., 2014. The man who named the clouds. Science Museum Blog. [Accessed 27 March 2020]
Brant, C., 2019. A cloud. European Romanticism in Association?: A pan-European organization bringing together individual researchers, scholarly associations and heritage institutions studying Romantic literature and culture. [Accessed 27 March 2020]
Hamblyn, R. 2001. The invention of clouds: how an amateur meteorologist forged the language of the skies. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. British Library shelfmarks m02/13387, YK.2001.a.15194
Howard, L., [1830]. On the modification of clouds and on the Principles of their Production, Suspension, and Destruction: Being the Substance of an Essay read before the Askensian Society in the Session 1802-3, Second ed. Printed by Talor, Black-Horse-Road, Fleet Street, London. British Library shelfmark 1393.k.16.(1.) 
Pedgley, D.E., 2003. Luke Howard and his clouds. Weather 58, pp. 51–55. [Accessed 27 March 2020]
Reno, S.T., 2017. Romantic Clouds: Climate, Affect, Hyperobjects Seth T. Reno, in: Robertson, B.P. (Ed.), Romantic Sustainability: Endurance and the Natural World, 1780-1830. Lexington Books, Chapter 3. British Library shelfmark YC.2016.a.11155 
P. Vergilius Maro, Georgics. Books One. J. B. Greenough, (ed.) Translated by J.B. Greenough into English, 1900 Text [Accessed 27 March 2020]
Wordsworth, W., Kelliher, W.H., 1984. The manuscript of William Wordsworth’s poems, in two volumes (1807): a facsimile. British Library, London. British Library shelfmark Document Supply fGPB-46
Contributed by Andrea Deri, Science Reference Team