Global health agencies have prescribed masks as the best defense against COVID-19. Here’s a brief history of how masks came into existence and evolved with time. With a long cloak and grotesque bird-like mask, the European ‘plague doctor’ was a disconcerting sight. The eccentric headpiece served as a kind of primitive ‘gas mask’ for medical practitioners in the 17th-century Europe, designed to protect its wearer from the foul odours associated with the plague. Physicians completed the look with a wide-brimmed hat, long coat, and wooden cane (which enabled them to examine patients without getting too close).
In the 19th century, as germ theory spread, and scientists discovered germs on dust particles, fashionable, wealthy women in Paris wore lace veils to protect themselves from dust particles on busy streets.
Based on his experiments with test tubes with and without cotton stoppers, in 1878, A.J. Jessup, a Westtown, New York, physician recommended cotton masks to limit infection during pandemics. The idea failed to catch on.
Alice Hamilton, a Chicago based physician published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 1905 citing experiments measuring the quantum of streptococci bacteria expelled by scarlet fever patients while coughing recommending mask wearing by doctors and nurses during surgeries.
Pneumonic plague struck Manchuria in 1910-11. Wu Lien-teh, a Cambridge educated Chinese doctor, appointed by the Chinese court to head anti-plague efforts established that the disease was transmitted through airborne contact and prescribed the mask as a ‘prophylactic apparatus’ that could be worn by all to protect themselves from the plague.
In the same decade as the Manchurian epidemic, over 40 million people around the world lost their lives to the Spanish flu of 1918. The same outbreak arrived in India as the Bombay fever. The practice of covering one’s face with scarves and veils with the intention to guard against the disease originated during this period
In 1923, the Great Kanto earthquake in Japan was followed by a firestorm that wrecked over half a million homes. Damage to the Fukushima reactors leaked radiation and left the sky filled with residual ash for months. Facemask production surged and it became an essential accessory for the inhabitants of Tokyo and Yokohama.
In the 1920s, masks became a norm in operating rooms. Over the next century, medical researchers continued to experiment with designs and materials. During the influenza epidemic in 1934 those infected wore masks to prevent the spread to others. Masks became a symbol of social courtesy. In the Post-World War II era, choking air pollution, particularly in London, forced Britons to wear “smog masks.”
Mask wearing as a practice is not new, COVID-19 is. A simple accessory that offers the most affordable protection against the novel coronavirus, mask has been prescribed by global health authorities as an important tool to fight the COVID pandemic.