Un-Masking the Origin and the Purpose of the Surgical Mask

Title: Un-Masking the Origin and the Purpose of the Surgical Mask

During the Black Death Plague (circa 1565), doctors adopted PPE (personal protective equipment) intended to protect themselves from infected patients. For the record, the Black Death pathogen was not airborne but transmitted by fleas. That choice of personal protective equipment (PPE) was unscientific and only marginally effective.

Around the year 1900, masks began to be used routinely during surgery to prevent micro-organisms residing in medical personnel’s noses and mouths from contaminating the operative field.  A secondary purpose was to protect the wearer from blood spatter and other fluids from the patient.  These were not always used by all members of the surgical team. source

The idea for a surgical mask made of a layer of gauze came to physician Johann Mikulicz Fluegge in Poland in 1897. In 1898 Huebner recommended that masks made of two layers of gauze … be used… He showed that mask efficiency was improved by increasing the layers of gauze … In 1905 Hamilton proposed that scarlet fever was transmitted through droplet infection. She recommended that masks be worn by nurses handling sterile dressings and by doctors during surgery because of the danger of droplet infection from the mouth and nose…. source

The 1940s ushered in the Atomic Age. The Manhattan Project produced the first atomic bomb and along with the bomb a radically new airborne pathogen, deadly radioactive particles. The Arthur D. Little Research and Development corporation, under contract to the U.S. government, developed the “absolute filter” to protect personnel building the bomb’s radioactive materials. After 1950 it came to be known as the high-efficiency particulate air filter — the HEPA filter.

In 1972, the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, commonly known as the 3M Company, developed the first single-use N95 mask. A Taiwanese-American inventor named Peter Tsai patented the material used in the manufacture of the N95 mask.

The chief value of the surgical mask is to protect others from infected persons. Only a properly-fitted N95 mask can protect the wearer from the airborne aerosols and droplets from infected persons.

I quote from FactCheck.org: “In one study, scientists at the CDC’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health tested a variety of face coverings for their ability to prevent the outward spread of particles from a simulated cough. N95 respirators performed the best — blocking 99% of the particles — while medical masks blocked 59% and a cloth mask blocked 51%. The only covering that failed to do much of anything was a face shield, which stopped just 2%.”

While recently undergoing examination by physician, I was required to wear a surgical mask; he wore a N95 mask. I remarked, “Your mask and my own both do the same thing: they both protect you from me.” He shrugged and nodded agreement.

What to do? Choose wisely, my friend.

John White
Rockwall, Texas

Published by John White

A lifetime (over 50 years) of experiences with automation and control systems ranging from aerospace navigation, radar, and ordinance delivery systems to the world's first robotic drilling machine for the oil patch, to process-control systems, energy management systems and general problem-solving. At present, my focus is on self-funding HVAC retrofit projects and indoor air quality with a view to preventing infections from airborne pathogens.

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