The History of Medical Face Masks - How They Have Evolved

Patriot Medical Devices

Medical face masks have a long and storied history, dating back to ancient civilizations. The use of masks to protect against airborne particles and pathogens can be traced back to the Roman Empire, where masks made of animal bladders were worn by surgeons to protect against the spread of disease.

“Face Masks” in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, the bubonic plague, also known as the “Black Death,” swept across Europe, killing millions of people. During this time, doctors and nurses wore masks made of cloth or leather to protect themselves from the disease. These masks were called “plague doctors” and they were designed to cover the entire face and head, leaving only a small opening for the eyes. The mask was often made of a heavy material such as leather and had a long beak-like nose that was filled with sweet-smelling substances, such as herbs and perfumes. The theory behind this was that the mask would filter out the bad air, which was believed to spread the disease. The mask also had a large cape that covered the body, which was designed to protect the wearer from coming into contact with the infected person.

It’s important to note that, despite the ominous appearance of these masks, the beak-like design did not protect the physicians from inhaling the disease, as the disease was spread by flea bites and not through air. The role of the mask was to protect the doctor from the bad smell of the infected people, and to prevent the doctor from getting too close to them.

A 17th century “Plague Doctor” Physician wearing their designated “protective” mask and attire.1

19th Century Mask Advancements

The use of medical face masks continued to evolve in the 19th century, with the advent of new technologies and materials. In 1849, Florence Nightingale, the founder of modern nursing, introduced the use of face masks made of gauze to protect against the spread of infection in hospitals. These masks were worn by doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals, and were often soaked in a disinfectant solution before use.

Wotton Lodge, Gloucester: operating theatre and staff. Photograph, ca. 1909.1

20th Century Mask Advancements

During World War I, face masks were worn by soldiers to protect against mustard gas and other chemical weapons. These masks were made of a combination of materials, including cotton and rubber, and featured a filter that removed harmful particles from the air.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the use of medical face masks increased in hospitals and clinics, as the threat of airborne infections became more widely recognized. During this time, masks were made of a variety of materials, including gauze, cotton, and cellulose, and were often worn in combination with goggles and other protective gear.

The advent of antibiotics in the 1940s and 1950s brought new hope for the treatment of infectious diseases, and the use of face masks began to decline. However, the emergence of new and more virulent pathogens, such as HIV and SARS, has led to a renewed interest in the use of medical face masks.

The Modern Face Mask

Today, medical face masks are made of a variety of materials, including cotton, polypropylene, and other synthetic materials. These masks are designed to fit snugly over the nose and mouth, and feature a variety of filtration systems, including electrostatically charged fibers and activated carbon filters, to remove harmful particles from the air.

A selection of modern face masks that can be seen around the world.

The Utilization of Modern Masks Today

In recent years, the use of medical face masks has become more widespread, as concerns about the spread of influenza, COVID and other respiratory illnesses have increased. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends the use of medical face masks in situations where there is a risk of transmission of a respiratory illness, such as during an outbreak of a new virus or when caring for a patient with a known infection.

In addition to their use in healthcare settings, medical face masks are also widely used by the general public to protect against the spread of respiratory illnesses. This is particularly important in times of a pandemic such as COVID-19, which led to a global shortage of face masks, as people around the world rushed to protect themselves and their loved ones from the virus.

The history of medical face masks is a testament to the ongoing battle against infectious diseases, and the importance of taking steps to protect ourselves and those around us. With new technologies and materials constantly emerging, medical face masks will continue to play a vital role in the fight against the spread of disease.

The Patriot 3 Ply Face Mask

Patriot Medical Devices has diligently developed and perfected one of the world’s most comfortable, protective and durable 3 ply face masks since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. Face masks have evolved from the Plague Doctor leather bird mask to the modern surgical mask health care workers rely on in their day to day work life, and Patriot has been at the forefront of this technology. The Patriot American-made 3 ply mask is produced with soft, modern medical grade, hypoallergenic materials. Patriot prides themselves on their domestic material supply chain that is only possible through the advancement of medical face mask technology and well-developed companies created to better the world we live in.

1 Welcome Collective

Return to the Patriot Post