The shortage of face masks during the COVID-19 pandemic has become a symbol of the fragility of modern medicine and public health. Several explanations have been advanced for this situation, from a panicking public hoarding masks to the offshoring of manufacturing and the disruption of global trade. The history of medicine suggests another factor could be considered: the progressive replacement of reusable face masks by disposable ones since the 1960s. Medicine has been transformed by consumer culture—what Life Magazine enthusiastically named “Throwaway Living” in 1955. The history of the medical mask illuminates how this vulnerability was created.
Covering the nose and mouth had been part of traditional sanitary practices against contagious diseases in early modern Europe. This protection was primarily about neutralising so-called miasma in the air through perfumes and spices held under a mask, such as the plague doctors’ bird-like masks. Such practices, however, had become marginal by the 18th century. Face masks, as they are used today in health care and in the community, can be largely traced back historically to a more recent period when a new understanding of contagion based on germ theory was applied to surgery.