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The Trajectory of the N95 Respirator: History of the Mask and Its Contributions

Updated: Feb 17, 2022

The mask has become a symbol of our times. It is representative of a time of uncertainty, political upheaval, and partisan divides. It reminds us of a world that was paused, lifestyles that were interrupted, and a permeating social anxiety that has left us highly attuned to our health and those of our loved ones. And while we might think of the Covid mask as the highly-personalized and customized cloth mask with colorful designs or school logos, it’s really the N95 that does most of the work. This mask has a long and interesting story.

The N95 respirator has been used in the healthcare field and other sectors for many years because of its efficiency in covering up to 95% of pathogens in the air.

Here’s how it evolved.

The Development of Early Masks and Face Coverings

The development of these masks—and their use in healthcare— was born out of our understanding of how certain diseases spread. So, in essence, the mask was right smack in the middle of fundamental understandings of disease transmission and protection.

Today, we all take for granted the knowledge that some diseases can be transmitted via air particles. This wasn’t always understood. Early mask-wearing involved the objective of masking smells, not necessarily the knowledge that microscopic pathogens could be spread via air droplets. The contagion masks used across Europe during the plague were not only the beginning of this understanding, but they were also totally creepy. They resembled long bird beaks with two nostrils fixed on the edge. So glad we’ve moved on from that!

An illustration of a plague doctor
Source: National Geographic

By the 1870s, surgeons began wearing masks when they performed on patients. These were simple surgical masks, not the modern N95 respirators. Their main purpose is not to block disease droplets but to prevent a surgeon from sneezing or coughing onto a patient’s open wound.

There is an important distinction between a mask and a respirator. And this distinction was highlighted during the Covid era.

The Development of the Respirator

According to one historical account, Julius Jefferys, a British man, first patented the respirator in 1836. It was made out of silk, leather, and wire mesh. By today’s standards, it was a bulky-looking thing, resembling more a dog’s muzzle than an N95 mask. Jeffreys apparently had an idea early on that climate had quite a bit to do with the spreading of disease. He was convinced that disease came in large part from airborne particles of human waste.

There was, of course, some truth to the general idea.

In 1911, during the Third Plague Pandemic in China, makeshift cloth masks provided some protection. A Cambridge-educated doctor named Lien-teh Wu helped develop a thick gauze and cotton mask that would help many evade infection. As the Spanish Flu hit the U.S. in 1918, new versions of these cloth masks were also used to help slow down the infection.

Respirator Masks During the World Wars

As World War I broke out, the concept behind these early masks became essential to the development of gas masks that would filter out chemical contaminants that were being used in chemical warfare. Some might say that these military-grade masks were descendants of the Wu design. In the mining industry, similar fiberglass masks were developed to help miners combat black lung.

The N95 Design is Born From an Unexpected Place

The design of what we now recognize as the N95 has interesting origins. A woman named Sara Little Turnbull is often credited with contributing to the N95 design. Turnbull had recently lost three loved ones to illness and had lived through constant visitations and stays at the hospital. At the same time, understanding the harms of breathing in asbestos became common knowledge. Various industries were struggling with ways to protect workers in high-risk scenarios.

Turnbull, a woman, consulting for a company named 3M had become fascinated with a new technology that could create a fabric made out of melted polymer. She was chasing the design of a new bra, but due to her personal circumstances of visiting family members in hospitals, an idea was born.

What if….she could take the cup shape of the bra and make it into a mask? She went back to her company with the idea and the rest is medical mask history.

The N95 Dominates in the Healthcare and Industrial Sectors

In the 1970s, the industrial filtration standard was the N95. This little mask had gained itself quite the reputation as a robust protector. Now, the N95 is a major component of PPE and is used widely in many medical settings. It has also been recommended to help slow down the spread of Covid.

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