It’s hard to think of a symbol of COVID-19 more fraught than the N95 respirator. The mask fits tightly around the face and is capable of filtering 95% of airborne particles, such as viruses, from the air, which other protective equipment (such as surgical masks) can’t do. It’s a life-saving device that is now in dangerously short supply. As such, it has come to represent the extreme challenges of the global response to COVID-19.
How did a flimsy polymer cup become the most significant health device of the 21st century? It all started in 1910 with a little-known doctor who wanted to save the world from one of the worst diseases ever known.
The first masks were about stopping smell
Going back even further—long before we understood that bacteria and viruses could float through the air and make us sick—people improvised masks to cover their faces, says Christos Lynteris. Lynteris is a senior lecturer at the Department of Social Anthropology at the University of St. Andrews, who is an expert in medical mask history.