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Unmasked: A brief history of PPE

Two thousand. That’s the number of handmade masks that theater faculty members Kristin Jensen and Felicia Malachite, along with three of their graduate students, sewed and delivered to local businesses in the first six months of the coronavirus pandemic.

From the infamous plague doctors’ beaked masks of the 1600s to the face shields and N95 masks of today, personal protective equipment (PPE) has evolved significantly and has proven instrumental to health and safety in the medical field and in civic life. In our current struggle facing COVID-19, UMass has helped make and distribute much-needed PPE to area hospitals, essential service providers, and front-line health care workers.

But the new coronavirus isn’t the first time UMass has experienced an epidemic. When the 1918–19 influenza pandemic came along, Massachusetts Agricultural College (as it was known then) was prepared with nurses and dedicated space for patients. Then, as now, UMass is working to uphold the health and safety of the community. You can even purchase your very own UMass face mask from the campus store.

Illustration of beaked plague doctor mask and garb


PPE version 1.0—Doctors’ garb during the black plague featured glass goggles and beaked masks. The beaks contained aromatic spices to fend off the “vapors” thought to transmit the disease.

Infirmary building on UMass campus


One of the contagious ward buildings constructed on campus for patients during the 1918 influenza pandemic. The college seems to have fared well, as evidenced by the Collegian headline on October 6, 1918: “Health Conditions at College Exceedingly Bright.”

Illustration portrays a man covering his mouth with a handkerchief


This public service announcement from the Rensselaer County Tuberculosis Association feels eerily relevant in 2020. The period from 1912–1920 saw outbreaks of scarlet fever, influenza, and tuberculosis, each with various levels of severity.

A group of schoolchildren wearing gas masks


During World War II, gas masks were commonly carried everywhere by Britons anticipating possible attacks. Here, schoolchildren in Hallow, Worcestershire, practice wearing their masks. Small bags or boxes, often chicly decorated, held the masks at the ready.

Person wearing contemporary cloth face mask


Felicia Malachite wears one of the masks that she and the UMass costume shop team have sewn. “It feels good to be able to serve the community in this way,” says colleague Kristin Jensen.

Show us your mask! Don’t worry, it doesn’t have to be as elaborate as these folks. … Tag #umassmagazine on your social media post and you may be featured in our ongoing community story.