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The mask - a flimsy polymer cup - fits tightly around the face and is capable of filtering 95% of airborne particles, such as viruses, from the air.
The firsts masks were cloth placed around the mouths and noses of people and were not meant to be against contagion. It was to stop the smell as people thought that the stench caused disease. By protecting themselves from the smell, people thought they'd be protected from the disease.
Doctors started wearing the first surgical masks in 1897. The masks were not designed to prevent airborne disease - that is still not the case today - but to prevent doctors from coughing or sneezing droplets onto wounds during surgery.
During 1920, a plague broke out between a shared jurisdiction of China and Russia. The Chinese Imperial Court brought in a young doctor named Lien-teh Wu that determined that the plague was not spread by fleas but through the air. He expanded upon the surgery masks he'd seen in the West, and made it from gauze and cotton and added several layers of cloth to filter inhalations.
When the Spanish flu arrived in 1918, the mask was well-known among scientists and the public.