The Unlikely History of the N95 Mask, the Face Covering Most Sought-After Amid the Coronavirus Pandemic

New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo holds up an N95 face mask during a press conference.
New York's Governor Andrew Cuomo holds up an N95 face mask during a press conference.(Getty)

Today, it's hard to find an N95 mask for sale, but the respirator wasn't always so highly coveted.

The N95 mask went from niche medical equipment to the most coveted item – along with toilet paper, yeast and hand sanitizer – as quickly as the coronavirus spread across the United States. So what exactly is it, and how did it come to be so popular?

The N95 respirator, which is reusable in some instances, is highly protective, and is named for its filter class. According to the CDC, a NIOSH-approved N95 filter, which requires a synthetic polymer fiber mesh layer, must be able to “remove at least 95% of airborne particles during ‘worst case’ testing using a ‘most-penetrating’ sized particle.” In some instances, the masks also have to be approved by the FDA. 

But amid the scramble for PPE, N95 respirators are running low in stock. 3M, which was controversially ordered to ramp up its production under the Defense Production Act (DPA), is one of the only companies that make them in the United States. Those made abroad may undergo different testing, including the KN95 masks, which are essentially the same product but certified by China instead of the U.S. The FDA recently announced they will no longer block imports of the KN95 in an attempt to ease shortages.

Today’s scramble for the masks, however, marked a staunchly different attitude toward the product than when they first came out. In fact, the first respirator, created in Manchuria in 1910 to battle an outbreak of the pneumonic plague, was seen as a bit of a joke. 

Christos Lynteris, an expert in medical mask history at the University of St. Andrews, explained the sentiment was, “What can we expect of a Chinaman?”

Lynteris explained in an interview with Fast Company that the Chinese Imperial Court named Dr. Wu Lien Teh as head of their efforts against the fast-spreading epidemic. That outbreak went onto claim over 60,000 lives across northern China in just four months, according to an article published in Protein & Cell.

Despite many at the time believing the plague was transmitted by rats or disease, and could not be spread from person to person, Wu discovered that it could be transmitted by human breath or sputum, and developed a rudimentary respirator – which was made to be tougher than a normal surgical mask used in the West, with layers of cloth to filter out the air – to be worn when treating patients, Lynteris explained.

Dr. Gérald Mesny, a prominent French doctor of the time, “humiliates him,” Lynteris said. “And to prove his point, [Mesny] goes and attends the sick in a plague hospital without wearing Wu’s mask, and he dies in two days with plague.” His death shocked the medical community worldwide.

Wu went onto close off Northeastern China in an attempt to quarantine the disease and ordered the cremation of the dead – efforts that helped stop the pneumonic plague in its tracks less than a year later. He later become the first Chinese doctor nominated for a Nobel Prize in Medicine and statues of him were erected at Harbin Medical University in China.

Wu’s mask eventually aided efforts against the Spanish Flu of 1918, and became commonplace in hospitals and medical treatments. It also went onto be adapted for other usages, including different filters to be used by soldiers during World War I and World War II, as well as by miners.

But the introduction of non-woven fibers, which characterized the N95 mask, didn’t come along until the 1950s, with an unlikely creator, Sara Little Turnbull. Turnbull, raised in New York City, went to the Parson’s School of Design and had a background as an editor for “House Beautiful” magazine.

While her work was mostly in lifestyle and interior design, Turnbull caught the eye of corporations with her attitude of creating products for the consumer rather than the retailer, and eventually went on to work for Corning Glass, General Mills and 3M, according to her obituary in the New York Times.

The prototype for the non-woven mask she pitched to 3M began with the process of making stiffer ribbons for gift wrapping using melted polymer which was then air blasted into a fabric of tiny fibers, Fast Company reported, and the shape came to be inspired by the cup of a bra. Even though that was dubbed a dust mask, since it wasn’t able to block out pathogens, 3M eventually ran with the idea, developing a filter technology that would filter out particles.

It eventually played a role in battling the 1990s rise of drug-resistant tuberculosis, the early-2000s SARS outbreak and is even now used in everyday life in cities with heavy pollution.

Today, the N95 mask continues to play a role in battling the coronavirus pandemic, with 3M announcing that it has doubled its production of NIOSH-approved N95 masks in January, with plans to continue aggressively ramping up production and anticipating the manufacturing of 2 billion masks for markets around the world by the end of 2020.