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A Brief History of Gas Masks

After terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, and subsequent anthrax attacks through the mail, homeland security and personal safety became a national priority. Just as the public debated the advisability of individual bomb shelters during the Cold War, many now wondered whether individual ownership of gas masks would offer protection from chemical warfare.

Dramatic images in our photograph collection caught our attention as the topic engaged public conversation.

The history of protective masks dates back to the 16th century. Historic records show that Leonardo Da Vinci suggested that a fine cloth dipped in water could protect sailors from a toxic powder weapon he had designed.

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, the German High Command and the Allies used five kinds of poisonous gases. More than 30 percent, or 70,552, of the Americans wounded in World War I were gas casualties. Gas warfare pushed the development of protective masks from Great Britain’s initial use of a piece of cloth tied over the face to those with more sophisticated construction and chemical absorbents.

One Salvation Army worker recalled that her crew in the Meuse-Argonne cooked 2,000 donuts for the men at the front, even after “sneezing gas” forced them to don their gas masks. But most of the effects of gas warfare were far more serious than sneezing attacks. Gases blistered exposed flesh and caused rapid or, worse, gradual asphyxiation. One nurse described how her patients were blinded, fighting for breath, feeling their throats closing and knowing they would choke to death.

The horrors of World War I gas warfare increased precautions during World War II. Members of the Women’s Army Corps (WACs) trained in the use of gas masks in simulation chambers, sat through basic military courses on Defense Against Chemical Attack, and some studied gas identification in Officer Candidate School. Overseas, military personnel, nurses and civilians were legally required to carry gas masks at all times.

Gas mask design and efficiency have developed exponentially since the United States entered World War I when the US Army was unprepared for chemical warfare and had to borrow equipment from the British and French.

The essential equipment, however, remains the same–a face cover with eyepieces and a mouthpiece connecting to a filter that absorbs noxious gases.

Under increased threat of chemical warfare, the quest for the perfect mask continues. The armed forces are working to standardize gas masks across all services and newer models include a single eyepiece for better vision. Most of all, researchers strive for increased protection for military personnel against greater varieties of biological and chemical weapons.