The 17th-century court doctor Charles de Lorme rose to fame by inventing the all-enveloping “plague prevention costume” to protect doctors from infectious patients. But his career was dogged by criticism and a controversial treatment that became his speciality.
Today people all over the world have adopted new habits and established new routines as a way of protecting themselves and others from COVID-19. One form of defence is wearing a mask when out and about, which has its origins in the voluminous 17th-century “plague prevention costume”.
The plague prevention costume was invented by French physician Charles de Lorme (1584–1678) as a result of the 1619 Paris pandemic, which had desolated the capital city. A close friend of Charles’s, Michel de Saint-Martin, wrote de Lorme’s memoirs, and recalled that during this terrible time, “fathers abandoned their children, and spouses refused to assist one another”. De Lorme was not the kind of man who could sit back and do nothing. He got to work and created a garment that would enable him to offer assistance to those in need while still protecting himself.
This costume covered the person wearing it from head to toe so that the air – which carried dangerous viruses and germs – could not penetrate, offering a layer of protection to doctors as they attended the sick. It included boots, a waxed-leather hat and a mask, which had a “nose half a foot long, shaped like a beak, filled with perfume with only two holes, one on each side near the nostrils, but that can suffice to breathe and to carry along with the air one breathes the impression of the drugs enclosed further along in the beak”.
This brilliant invention advanced de Lorme’s career, and he became a significant medical figure in the French court and beyond. His costume was used by physicians all around France and further afield, in other European countries such as Italy, with which – having spent part of his life there – de Lorme already had great connections. He “was admired by the physicians of the university of Padua”, and “as a token of appreciation for his work, the city of Venice made him a Venetian nobleman”.
Doctors wore de Lorme’s costume in later epidemics, like the Great Plague of Marseille in 1720, and it even influenced Italian commedia dell'arte and carnival costumes. Although de Lorme was famous for inventing the costume, his career was not just about that: he was a pioneer in medical treatments.
Charles was the son of another renowned medical man, Jean de Lorme. A professor at the University of Montpellier, Jean de Lorme had been the primary physician to Louise de Lorraine-Vaudémont, wife to Henri III of France, and then to Marie de Medici, Henri IV’s queen consort. Jean had built a remarkable reputation for himself at court, and Charles also benefited from his father’s network. In 1606, at the age of twenty-six, Charles was made primary physician to Henri IV of France.
Both father and son were renowned as great doctors by their peers. Upon Jean’s death in 1637, Monsieur Dupuy, surgeon to the Nevers family, wrote to Charles referring to Jean’s “immense contribution to the medical community”, and stated that “his works on finding solutions for haemorrhoids, intestinal herniae, had changed everyone’s approach to these problems”. He concluded his letter praising Charles’s own medical merits: “You are the true successor to your father’s accomplishments.”
Unfortunately these views weren’t shared by everyone. Both Jean and Charles had made enemies over the years because of their fame and their work for the royal family. Dupuy alluded to these “detractors” who criticised Jean and Charles’s works, saying he did not believe that they were “at the service of science”. This wasn’t the first time Charles had faced criticism: in his memoir, Charles’s friend Michel de Saint-Martin recalled that the physician made quite a few enemies along the way.
Charles had served three French kings – Henri IV, Louis XIII, and Louis XIV – and in 1658, Louis XIV was afflicted with food poisoning. François Guénault – a doctor who had worked with de Lorme – gave Louis an emetic composed of antimony and wine. Antimony, a poisonous metallic element, was used for medical purposes in the 17th century, but its toxicity alarmed some physicians, who thought it more likely to be lethal than beneficial. In his account, Charles “had recommended antimony as a powerful cure for sickness and other intestinal trouble for decades”, but this cure had been vehemently opposed by his Parisian counterparts, notably a Monsieur Patin.
Fortunately, after taking the medication, the king recovered from his illness and, following Charles’s advice, allowed the use of antimony as a remedy for sickness and bowel diseases all across France. Yet criticism of Charles increased. Charles had been recommending that court nobles, including the king and queen, drink his “red beverage, which had wonderful properties”. It was supposed to help “to refresh and purify blood, and to unclog arteries and it could also cure any fevers”. In response, Parisian physicians attacked him, asserting that these claims were absurd.
Despite this, Charles’s fame and reputation grew. Michel de Saint Martin related that in the 1650s a nobleman begged Charles to cure his wife from “a disease that Parisian physicians had declared incurable”. Thanks to Charles’s “red beverage” and the other remedies he offered, the woman was cured.
Overall, Charles is remembered as a brilliant doctor who not only created a plague prevention costume but who could also “entertain at court with his imagination and stories about the improbable remedies he had discovered”. He died on 24 June 1678, and a month later the magazine Le Mercure galant paid tribute to his medical accomplishments. Despite his detractors in Paris, he had an exceptional career, establishing himself as one of the most renowned French physicians who had ever lived.
About the author
Dr Estelle Paranque is lecturer in Early Modern History at the New College of the Humanities at Northeastern and an honorary research fellow at the University of Warwick. She is the author of ‘Elizabeth I of England Through Valois Eyes’ and has published several essays and journal articles.