The N95 respirator has become one of the most widely-recognized symbols of the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a mask that fits tightly around the face, and it’s capable of filtering up to 95 percent of all airborne particles – viruses, bacteria, and other aerosols that other forms of protective equipment (like everyday surgical masks) just can’t protect you from.
N95 respirators are a life-saving tool that was, up until recently, in dangerously short supply. As such, it has become a metaphor for the challenges of the worldwide effort to stop COVID-19.
But what was its original purpose? How did this polymer cup become one of the most significant pieces of protective equipment of the 21st century?
It all started in 1910, when a doctor decided he wants to save the world from one of the worst diseases known to humanity. But let’s go back even further.
Masks have been used way before people understood that bacteria and viruses existed, or that they could float through the air and make people sick.
Experts in medical history often point us to Renaissance-era paintings in which people have covered their faces and noses with handkerchiefs to prevent getting sick. Paintings from the 18th century, for example, show people protecting themselves from the bubonic plague using cloth face coverings.
But they didn’t believe that this will protect them from getting infected. The only reason these people were wearing cloth around their noses was that they believed diseases such as the plague were gases coming up from the ground. They believed the plague was in the air and atmosphere itself, not send out from one person to another via minuscule particles.
By the late 1870s, people learned about bacteria.
The belief that infectious diseases were in the air quickly fell off as soon as the modern field of microbiology picked up steam. But up until the end of the 19th century, all the technology used against germs were technologies that protected you from the “corrupt air” around you.
Then, at the turn of the 20th century, doctors started wearing the first surgical masks. They were basically a piece of cloth covering, and they weren’t designed to filter airborne viral aerosols – and that’s still not their purpose today. What they were created for is to prevent doctors from releasing body fluids through coughing or sneezing into the wounds of a patient during surgery.
That’s when the distinction between a mask and a respirator emerged.
A lot of healthcare professionals nowadays are upset by the fact that they’re being told to wear surgical masks if respirators are unavailable. Masks are not only made from completely different materials, but they only fit loosely around the face, whereas respirators create an airtight seal that filters the air coming in.
In the autumn of 1910, a severe plague broke out all across Northern China, which was then broken up into a few political ecosystems of shared jurisdiction between Russia and China.
With this plague being described similar to the Black Death and having killed almost everyone it infected, a scientific arms race began. Both countries wanted to be the creator of the solution that will stop this plague, more or less for political reasons.
A doctor by the name of Lien-the Wu lead the Chinese effort for creating a solution. In a plague that quickly demanded attention from doctors around the world, his efforts seemed rather unimportant, but he made the breakthrough that was necessary in order to find the much-needed solution.
After an autopsy on one of the plague’s victims, he determined that the disease spread (as many others suspected) through the air.
He decided to expand upon the surgery masks created in the West and created a hardier mask that wrapped securely around the wearer’s face and added multiple layers of cloth to achieve effective air filtering.
Other local doctors also pursued his efforts and developed their own masks, but Wu’s mask became the leading example because empirical testing concluded it protected wearers from bacteria. What’s more, everyone could make his mask because the materials he used were cheap and in supply. Medical personnel started wearing them, soldiers started wearing them, and everyday people also started wearing them.
This helped them stall off the plague until it disappeared, and with this, masks became a symbol of our efforts against global pandemics.
The N95 is the grandson of Wu’s design.
Throughout World War I and World War II, scientists kept developing and innovating new masks that filtered gas in order to guarantee clean air supply for soldiers. Similar masks have also been used in the mining industry. But at that time, respirators were essentially giant helmets.
This continuous innovation lead to the development of the first N95 masks, which were used for industrial applications and later became medical protective equipment.
With driving factors such as the rise of drug-resistant tuberculosis and HIV, respirator masks have become more and more widespread in clinical settings since the 1990s.
The N95 standards were updated and revised for healthcare settings, and doctors began wearing them when helping tuberculosis patients. Even to this day, they’re rarely used in hospitals.
That being said, when outbreaks like COVID-19 come around and necessitate so much protection in our everyday lives, the N95 reminds us how far we’ve come, and how far we are yet to go and improve our protective equipment in response to crises.