Surgical masks have only recently become ubiquitous, though their history dates much further into the past and, in fact, they’ve been around for over a hundred years, being invented by prof. Mikulicz. In these difficult times the masks have proven themselves to be one of the most efficient ways of battling the rapid diffusion of the coronavirus and yet, very few people seem to know to whom we owe this brilliant and simple life-saving screen.
In the age of the pandemic, everyone is only too familiar with the omnipresent “mascherine” and, as for the sight of masked people walking down the streets, this is the new reality. With the face mask requirement returning to Italy and slowly, but steadily, to other EU countries as well, they remain one of the fundamental protective measures used to contain the diffusion of the insidious coronavirus. Needless to say, this simple, yet effective piece of equipment has saved the lives of millions. Still, in spite of being so widespread, very few people know who they owe this invention to.
Interestingly, the first person to design and put the gauze mask into regular use was, in fact, Jan Mikulicz-Radecki, a Polish surgeon and an acclaimed professor at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland. So how did it all start? Jan Mikulicz-Radecki was first struck with the idea whilst working on methods to prevent postoperative wound infections. In order to attain his goal, the Polish academic teamed up with a bacteriologist Carl Flügge, who had already discovered that respiratory droplet carried bacteria were a major cause of infections. Given these findings, Mikulicz created the medical mask in 1897, which he described as: “a piece of gauze tied by two strings to the cap, and spread across the face so as to cover the nose and mouth and beard”. The invention was adopted on a broader scale in the following decades, and by the 1920s over two-thirds of Europe’s surgeons wore masks of a similar design in operating rooms.
Originally made out of cotton (in the late 19th century), the Mikulicz medical mask was nearly identical to what it is today. Back in the day, most masks were washable and therefore, reusable. However, by the 1930s, they were replaced by the more sterile disposable mask. A further major change occurred over half a century later, in the 1960s, when cotton was replaced with synthetic materials with embedded air filters capable of purifying the inhaled air.
Jan Mikulicz-Radecki was without a shred of doubt a truly extraordinary individual. Not only was he the head surgeon at a number of prestigious universities in Poland, but he was also regularly invited as the guest of honour to surgeons’ conventions, lectures and events alike all over the world including some in the United States, Germany, Great Britain, Russia and even Japan. He was known and acknowledged all around the globe. His many Jewish patients were especially fond of the Pole, often saying: “Erst kommt der liebe Herrgott und dann der Perfesser Mikulicz” (“First comes the dear Lord and then comes professor Mikulicz” in English).
Being the ardent advocate of antiseptics that he was, professor Mikulicz played an important role in perfecting the modern surgeon’s attire. Apart from popularizing the protective masks, he also promoted the use of cotton gloves and opted against conducting surgery in unsterile “street clothes”. Then again, however brilliant the aforementioned inventions may seem; they were hardly the only contributions he made to the profession. Amongst his other inventions are the surgical drain, endoscope and many other surgical instruments. The Polish medical “genius” also made huge strides in cancer research.
So, next time you put your protective masks on, love them or hate them, there’s one person to thank.