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A Brief History of Gas Masks

After terrorist attacks on the United States on September 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 photo collection caught our attention as the topic engaged public conversation.

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

Nurse in gas mask, World War I
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, the German High Command and the Allies used five kinds of poisonous gases and 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 intital use of a piece of cloth tied over the face to those with more sophisticated construction and chemical absorbents.

Exiting bunker after gas attack practice, World War I

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.

Gas mask training during World War II

The horrors of World War I gas warfare increased precautions during World War II. WACs trained in the use gas masks in simulation chambers as part of their coursework on chemical warfare and some studied gas identification in Officer Candidate School.

Preparing for chemical attacks, World War II

Many WACs sat through basic military courses on Defense Against Chemical Attack several times during their military service. Overseas, military personnel, nurses and civilians were legally required to carry gas masks at all times.

Continuing a briefing session under threat of chemical warfare, Persian Gulf
When the United States entered the
war in April 1917, the U.S. Army was
unprepared for chemical warfare and
had to borrow equipment from the British and the French. Since then, gas mask design and efficiency have developed exponentially, but the essential equipment still consists of a face cover with eyepieces and a mouthpiece connecting to a filter that absorbs noxious gases.

Gas mask drill, Persian Gulf
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.