Making the Medical Mask: Surgery, Bacteriology, and the Control of Infection (1870s-1920s)

25 Aug 2022 09.30 AM - 11.00 AM Alumni, Current Students, Industry/Academic Partners, Prospective Students, Public
Organised by:
Park Hyung Wook

This presentation examines the introduction of the medical mask in the late nineteenth century at the intersection of surgery, bacteriology, and infection control. It was point During this important episode in the longer history of the medical mask, respiratory protection became a tool of targeted germ control. In 1897, the surgeon Johannes Mikulicz at the University of Breslau (now Wroclaw, Poland), drawing on the bacteriological experiments of his colleague Carl Flügge, used a piece of gauze in front of his nose and mouth as a barrier against microorganisms moving from him to his patients. This paper explores the social, cultural, and medical contexts of this particular use of the mask, in connection with germ theory and surgeons’ struggle with wound infection. It explores the alignment of the new aseptic surgery with the emerging field of bacteriology in a local milieu that favored interdisciplinary cooperation. This new type of anti-infectious mask was taken up outside of surgery for other anti-infectious purposes in hospitals and sanatoria, and eventually in epidemic contexts.


Thomas Schlich

James McGill Professor in the History of Medicine

Department Chair of Social Studies of Science

McGill University

Image: Johannes von Mikulicz in an operating room at the University of Breslau in 1899 wearing a gauze mask and elbow-length cotton gloves (S. Hiki and Y. Hiki, ‘Professor von Mikulicz-Radecki, Breslau: 100 years since his death’, Langenbeck’s Archives of Surgery (2005), 183; Reproduced with kind permission of Sumiko Hiki, Tokyo, Japan.)